Saying Goodbye

Last week I lost two of my climbing partners to a climbing accident in Peru.  I’ve shot photos of these guys in some crazy places, and some of the best adventures that I’ve been on were with them.  I’ve lost count of how many friends I’ve lost, but over two dozen is a safe guess.  It begs the question, are these sports that dangerous? Or are the people that I am friends with just pushing boundaries.  I know that they knew the risks, but did they really believe they were at risk?  I mean deep down?  We will never know, but as much as I feel sad that they are gone, it’s not because they didn’t live enough.  They lived more in their short lives than most people could live in 100 years.   I’m saddened because of what they could have done, and for the families that they left behind.    RIP Ben and Gil.

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Photo Trolls.

Contrary to popular belief, art does not take talent. Art is language, and just like verbal languages it takes years to become fluent, and even longer to be a master. Even then you may have only mastered one style, one “language” amongst many. Yes, the talented have an advantage, but it can be learned, and if the talented rely only on talent they will fail. I don’t believe I have any talent, other than working at something longer and harder than the next person.

Just like everything else my generation is interested in, art has turned toward instant gratification. I can see why Jackson Pollock first mounted a splatter painting on a gallery wall. It was new, it was beauty in chaos, and it flipped the bird to the conformists who did it the old fashioned way. Even still, Pollock’s paintings have a rhythm and aesthetic to them that is rarely mimicked, and has yet to be improved on by any modern splatter painter.

Today people splatter paint for an entirely different reason. Not to make a statement, or for any existential reason, but simply because it’s easy, quick, and looks kinda cool. Ask any modern painter to do a portrait, and most likely it will look like picasso’s rendition of a picasso. I fear my generation may be called the generation that lost art.

What will the future citizens of earth say about our place in the history of art? I imagine it would be something like “They had no clue what they were doing, but what they did do was not difficult, and they could usually accomplish it in an afternoon.”

I was listening to NPR today, and they were talking about the lack of formal training in the major art schools. Students are encouraged to come up with contemporary concepts, and are not educated in the skills required to wield a paintbrush or sculptors tool. They end up with out of focus videos of fat people rolling around naked on the floor, or a book with the pages on the outside… (that last one was my idea, don’t steal it.)

Photography is the same, and the worst part of it is so few people can see the difference between a total amateur and a seasoned professional. I’ve always dreamt of the portfolio review where the photo editor or art buyer did not say a word to me, and just picked up my book and examined my work. That has never happened, even at the biggest magazine that I’ve worked for, I’ve had numerous reviews where they never even look at my work.

This is why I think that trolling has entered the photography world. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, trolling comes from the internet comment and chat world. It’s the act of commenting with the intent of creating the largest amount of interactions with other people, usually negative, and almost always rude, aggressive, and inaccurate. It comes not from the troll under the bridge, but from the “fishing” term of towing a baited hook behind the boat.

Photographers have begun to troll. Artists in general have begun to troll. If they can’t make something well, they make it either big, or shocking. Take for example Terry Richardson, what he does is not difficult, and for the most part it’s porn. He’s become famous from it though, and is now a highly sought after photographer. Look at the art that graces Burning Man. It’s huge, it’s not usually very good, and for added effect let’s just have some flames shoot out of it…

Is that what it takes to make it now? Maybe I should have a portfolio that shoots flames at the art buyer, just to get their attention. Or perhaps I’ll put my head down and wait for people to become desensitized to the flair and start looking for people who actually know how to use a camera. Either way, I hope this is seen as a pep talk for my generation, and not finger pointing, I just want to see us do something great. With enough Ritalin I believe it is possible for at least one of us to focus on one thing long enough to create a masterpiece.

Artist Market… Total scam.

On a whim I thought I’d check out the “Artists Market” website that supposedly gives a list of agency contacts, magazine contacts, galleries and such. It’s 5.99 a month, so it seemed worth while because other sites that do this kind of thing are usually hundreds of dollars to subscribe to. Well. Here’s a photo showing the Ad Agencies of California I think they might have missed a few. Even worse, the contact info once you open the links is just their website… This is a scam, don’t waste 6 bucks.
California.

A letter to those people building my website

Millions of years ago, in internet years, all websites were custom built. They were either expensive, or horrible to navigate. I learned how to build my website in photoshop of all things, and each page was an image designed to look like a website, and it was horrible.

Not everybody was as talentless as a web designer as I, in fact some people managed to make masterpieces with the limited technology. The best sites are the ones that just work. By default these websites end up looking extremely simple. Subtle things like a change in the color of text hint at another level of depth in the page. It took me weeks to build my websites from scratch, mostly because I had no idea what I was doing and would have to start from scratch every time I learned something that improved the site. Also, because I was trying to build websites in photoshop.

Now I can “build” my site in a few hours, and that’s just a matter of filling in blanks in a pre-built template. It’s simple, looks expensive, and best of all, it’s cheap! I think that there is a sort of “moores law” of websites though, that states that every 18 months we will pack twice the amount of coding into a website designed to do the same job. What once was just a simple portfolio has turned into a complex pop up with buttons, fades, and a cute little jingle. There’s now slideshows in the background that somehow are supposed to make the photo that you’re looking at more interesting.

As a result, I’ve spent three months looking for a good template to replace my current site.

I understand, web design has come a long way, and you are flexing your coding muscles, but I just want to show my photos. If you went to a photography gallery, how are almost all photos framed? Thin black frame, white matte, nailed to a wall. Simple.

Take a look at Sebastian Kim’s website, Simple, elegant, no frills, perfect.

If you build it, those of us who want to avoid learning code will buy it.

2011 – Looking Back

As a self proclaimed “nomad” I tend to get antsy when I haven’t been on a major adventure in a few weeks. To keep myself appreciative of the kind of life that I’ve been able to lead thanks to a well chosen career and great friends like Lou Lesko helping me along the way.  I sometimes have to reflect on the last year and outline the best parts. Here’s how 2011 shaped up for me, and some of my favorite projects of the year.

Manatee

I got my start shooting for National Geographic in the underwater world, and although I’ve since moved on to mostly shoot above water, it’s one of my passions. I’m slowly but surely continuing my work on manatee, and hope to take it to the other side of the world and continue shooting dugong, a much more difficult subject that is a close relative of the manatee. This project was at first a way for me to start learning how to shoot the animals in an interesting way, but once I arrived in Florida I saw that most of the animals were covered in scars from the boats, and were nearly constantly pestered by the tourists. Expect to see more work from me on Manatee in 2012.

See my manatee photos on National Geographic Stock

Manatee in Three Sisters Springs, Florida.

Haiti

Haiti was a chance for me to start working with a wonderful photo editor named Leah Roberts.  Lou Lesko sent me to Haiti for the National Geographic Assignment Blog – See those stories here, and here.  It was also a chance to bring something new to photography.  I worked with Tomnod, a crowd sourcing group out of San Diego to put together a way for people to join me vicariously on the expedition.  Using satellite imagery to follow my ground based photography the viewer could not only see where I was, but they could see before and after images from the Haiti earthquake.  It was a huge hit, and quite possibly the first time this has been used in photojournalism.  I hear that Time magazine did something similar a few months later, I hope they got the idea from Tomnod but I don’t know.

A boy in City Soleil, Haiti.

Mongolia

Mongolia was one of the few projects that I did this year for National Geographic that narrowed my role down solely to the photography.  The project is headed by Dr. Albert Lin and was heralded as a huge advance in the field of archeology.  Dr. Lin took new tools into the field and used modern science to aid his search rather than the antiquated trowels and brushes that we associate with archeology.  We also used the predecessor of the Tomnod format as a way to crowdsource the search for ancient tombs by having millions of citizen scientists search through the satellite imagery for anomalies.   Here’s a link to the National Geographic page on the project.

Of course, besides the National Geographic photography that I was doing, I made my living shooting fashion, commercial, and adventure photos.  Here’s a gallery of favorites from this year.

I also got to try my hand at filming and producing television!  This was an entirely new angle for me, and I enjoyed (some of it) immensely.

Here’s a teaser from the Mongolia special I helped put together.

http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/player/specials/in-the-field-specials/expedition-mongolia.html

After this I filmed for Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” in Alaska, when that comes out be sure to Check out footage from the “Kodiak” to see my work.

Check out some of the personal video that I put together this year at http://www.youtube.com/user/Benhorton83?feature=mhee

I also wrote a number of articles, reviews, and blog posts for other websites and magazines, had my photos published in editorials around the country, I produced a new portfolio book from Blurb, and of course, have a grand personal project that I am not ready to tell anybody about. So 2012 if we manage to live through this coming apocalypse (I am not a believer) will be my best year yet.

Rant

Photographers are artists, and artist inherently are easily distracted.   It doesn’t  help that in the modern digital world our work is completed on the same device that supplies us with Facebook, Twitter, news and video’s of cats doing funny things.  A photographers workflow is as personal as other people’s morning ritual, asking us to change our ritual or throwing the odd wrench into our system doesn’t so much focus our wrath, it’s more of a intensifying of our distraction.  When a program isn’t working correctly or keeps crashing (even on my infallible MacBook Pro) I’m only about 1/4 second away from clicking on the google chrome app in my browser and being led down that rabbit hole.

 

I like the idea that my programs are updated automatically, that I can install plugin’s to Lightroom and Photoshop and so on; there was a time though that we’d read about what this new plugin or update consisted of.  Now in this age of the “Cloud” we don’t wait to hear if the updates work before our computer secretly downloads everything.  While we’re on the subject, all my programmer friends say that the “cloud” is just a facade, not a real cloud.

 

I would hope that this will force programmers to get their programs and updates working well before sending them out to be downloaded by the masses.   So far though, Text Edit is the only program I have any control of on my computer, and the result is this short piece.  I’m off to hold down my power button for a few seconds.

Syd Park

I had the honor of shooting with child actress Syd Park a few days ago.  She’s 13 years old and already touring as a stand up comic, acting in several Television series, and best of all has no ego surrounding her success.  Syd is going far, fast, so getting to photograph her now is very exciting.  See more photos from the shoot on my website.

Syd Park Child Actress

Syd Park

Why Beer is Important for Travelers.

The first thing you see when you arrive in a foreign country is usually a taxi. Whether exiting an airport or crossing a border, it’s the taxi drivers that first make contact. The question here, is how much should you be paying? Pay too much, and they’ll get used to ripping off uninformed visitors, pay to little and maybe you’ll end up in an alley.

I forget where I first learned this trick, it may have been from some stranger while riding a chairlift, it may have been from a fellow traveler. The best thing you can do is to ask a local “How much will a local beer cost me?”

To give an example of why this works think of your local restaurant. To get a taxi ride to the restaurant it’s about $10, or two beers. To eat, if it’s a cheap place $10-$15 will get you an entrée. That’s two or three beers.

Now let’s think of it in terms of travel. In Mongolia a beer is $1500 Touareg. A taxi in Ulaanbaatar will run you $3000 – $3500 Touareg. So expect to pay about the same for a meal.

Get the drift? Try it out and let me know how it works for you!

Forcing yourself to be Better

Here's a photo for Chris Kenny Connections that I absolutely had to shoot into the sun. Good thing I'd been practicing.

Getting better is hard. Especially when you think you know everything already. So to help myself continue to learn how to be a better photographer, I’ve introduced something new to my workflow, and I call it a “Forced Variable.” Don’t ask me where I got the name, that’s just what I ended up calling it. A forced variable is something that you always change when taking photos.  It could be never shooting the same location twice, deciding not to use zoom lenses for a day or shooting with your review screen turned off and not looking at your work until the end of the day. Using a forced variable makes things difficult at times but it is one of the best ways to continue learning how to be a better photographer. A forced variable is something that I use in practice, and while shooting personal projects.  Personal projects are what get us our “real” jobs, and keep our portfolios moving along.  It’s personal work that keeps me getting better at my job, and it’s also one of the things that keeps me interested in what I do. So forcing myself to use that time to expand my knowledge and skill set is a natural step. I know in the back of my mind that I can always return to a great location, so it’s not that I’m limiting myself, I’m expanding my library of locations by forcing myself to always look for something new and interesting. If I absolutely need that old location, it’s there. The benefits of forcing yourself to lear are countless. Just think about that next job you have, and they want you to shoot directly into the sun. There’s two ways you can answer them. 1. Gee, my photography class said never to shoot directly into the sun. Or 2. I have some great techniques I’ve been working on that I’d love to use for this shoot, would you like to see what it looks like?

How to Skin a Polar Bear


While I was in Baffin Island training for my Ellesmere Island Expedition we did a 300 mile race across the frozen landscape to a little village called Kimmirut.  This little village is made up almost entirely of Inuit, and though they now live in modern homes, much of the rest of their lives is still very traditional.  Hunting, surviving on the ice, and dogsledding take up a good portion of their time.  The hunting they do provides them with their meat, much of their clothing, and with a sense of tradition that may be impossible for someone like me to understand though I really do try.  It was found out that I’d done a lot of work involving sharks, and one of the students in the local school was doing a project on sharks, so I was asked to come in and speak to the class.  To my surprise, upon entering the classroom, they were in the midst of skinning a polar bear.  My conservation oriented mind was horrified, but as it is often necessary to do, I put my personal feelings aside and tried to see things from their perspective. 

In some villages, foreigners will come in and purchase the rights to shoot a polar bear for up to $60,000.  The inuit are allowed to take so many bears a year for their needs, and sadly, many of them are now more in need of cash than fur and meat.  Kimmirut was not one of these villages, they had the bear for their own purposes.

Later on in the expedition, I was in another town further north, and their economy had become largely dependant on foreigners coming in to hunt bears.  This town was much richer than Kimmirut, and had little need for the bears who’s lives they sold.  Walking down the street you would see dogs sitting there tied up, chewing on a frozen polar bear leg.  At some point I’d like to get back there to do this story, but in all my efforts, I’ve been turned away from the village where I saw this.  Perhaps I’ll have to go under the guise of a “hunter photographer.”

People, if you want to hunt a polar bear, I challenge you to even the odds.  Walk out there onto the ice, survive off of what you can find in the frozen landscape, and at least use a knife instead of a long range rifle.

The furs rarely leave the village anyway because it’s illegal to take the fur across the border from Canada, so all the foreign hunters get in the end is a photograph with them a the dead bear.

Better yet, challenge yourself to take a good photo of a living bear, it’s harder than killing it, and the bear gets to walk away.