My fascination with windows began when at the mature age of 6 I took my trusty Daisy Red Rider BB gun and took aim at the neighbors large glass window, gently squeezed the trigger as my cousin taught me and fired. I heard a very distinctive and sharp ‘crack’ when that little copper ball hit the window and to my amazement put a hole through the neighbor’s window pane. I never expected that something so small could penetrate something so large.
Despite the panic that ensued, I wanted to see my handiwork, so climbed over the low fence I had used as my rifle support and began to examine the spider like crack and small hole I had created. And just as suddenly as the BB hit the glass, my neighbor grabbed me by the collar and marched me to my Mom to explain what I had done.
Regardless of the punishment that followed, my fascination with windows followed me into adulthood, but without the BB gun. I noticed that whenever I sat on a train, in a cafe or anywhere that magic transparent plane existed it was as if I was invisible to the rest of the world and what transpired around me was mine to view in complete privacy.
As a photographer I was completely mesmerized by an image Jodi Cobb created of a young woman in a London cafe looking out toward a busy street at dusk. Her expression, her posture and the reflection of the activity around her helped me realize that we all seem to feel as if our own existence and feelings are hidden as well as protected behind a transparent plane. Perhaps a window allows us to forget that our feelings and thoughts are exposed to the world. Expressions become authentic when we allow the public masks we wear to melt away as we observe the world around us. I often think that watching our worlds through glass is our very own personal ultimate reality show.
It was these events that inspired me to begin a multiyear long series of images I call Moments of Transparency. The images I present in this series were primarily taken in my hometown of San Francisco. Always driven to replicate Ms. Cobb’s exquisite moment I am often found looking towards window panes hoping that in an instant I too will be able to capture a moment of unguarded authenticity.
The other day my partner Tracy announced that the new issue of Professional Photographers of America’s (PPA) magazine had arrived and was on the dining room table. I looked at the image on the cover and thought to myself, “Wow it’s about time they had a great portrait on the cover. Great black and white with a story in the image. I rarely see that nowadays.” Later in the week she said, “Babe I’m surprised you haven’t read about Gorman, the shot on the front is his and he’s featured since he’s getting an award later this year, Lifetime Achievement!” Well I guess I better look through the article to see what’s BS and what’s not….
For anyone who follows photography the name Greg Gorman is synonymous with classic and striking black and white portraiture. When I first began to seriously pursue the hobby of photography I would find myself searching the web for imagery that left me in awe. So many of the photographers I admired had passed away, Avedon, Karsh and Cartier-Bresson were among the late artists I constantly studied. I began to follow Greg when I came upon his portrait of Sophia Loren. I found myself mesmerized by her expression, her pose and the beauty he created of an already gorgeous woman. His portraiture told a story beyond the image and it’s one of the elements I found so compelling in his work. I didn’t bother to check to see if Gorman had passed away since it mattered little to me. It was his work I was studying, not the man.
I’m going to briefly rewind this story back to 2010. A long time friend of mine was having a surprise birthday party which I attended. Jeff Resnick and I had been friends because our boys were both in Scouts together as well as in music. Our wives would often joke that it was best for us to sit together during the high school plays since we both snored during performances. We watch best with our eyes closed to appreciate the music. Anyway during the party Jeff mentioned that his brother Seth was also a photographer and we may want to talk. Little did I know that in the usual Jeff manner he completely understated his brother’s accomplishments in photography. Among his many accomplishments Seth covered the historic Miracle on Ice Olympic Hockey game in 1980 and his photograph was the cover for Sports Illustrated. During my brief conversation with Seth (he and his brothers were occupied roasting the eldest brother Jeff) he mentioned that he was in town to head up to see Greg Gorman to help him teach. GREG GORMAN? You KNOW THE Greg Gorman? Seth got his signature giggle and smile and responded that he and Greg have known one another for quite some time. Seth suggested that I attend Greg’s class and after thinking it over for 2 seconds I thought SURE! He’s not dead right?
So I took PTO from my day job and packed my bags, camera gear and laptop and headed up to Albion, CA in Mendocino County where Gorman has his second home. I checked into my hotel and went to his front gate the evening before classes began. I rang the bell and his booming voice simply said “Yes?” “Hi Greg, it’s Mark Kitaoka and I’m here as scheduled to meet for dinner.” His response, “You’re a day early, come back tomorrow.” When I said OK, he immediately started laughing and said “I’m only pulling your leg, come on in.” Indication one, I like this guy already, he has a sense of humor. Little did I know just how much of a sense of humor he has. After entering his home located on the apex of a cliff overlooking the Mendocino coast I met the three other student who were part of my class. Jamie, Zan and another guy whose name escapes me. Several of Gorman’s assistants were there as well along with Gerry, Gorman’s personal assistant and jack of many trades. We all shared a meal and got to know one another. It was during that introduction that I mentioned to Gorman I didn’t want to be coddled, or have sunshine blown up my rear during my week with him. I wanted straight criticism and suggestions about my photography. His curriculum included all of the things I came to learn, lighting, both indoor and outdoor using strobes and natural light, how to engage models (talent) and how to manage a photographic portfolio and business. Each day contained the same format, a lesson, hands on shooting, assisting the other photographers and the next morning a critique by both Gorman and Seth. During our sessions Gorman and I began to banter and since I grew up in LA I am most comfortable bantering with others. I will only say that Gorman and I began to banter in a way that is anything but appropriate. I believe it was Zan who said something like “Thank god this place has NO HR department.” In reality our banter between one another would be something the ACLU would need to address, since it was regularly beyond what any HR department could handle. It was then that I knew Gorman was my kind of people.
And when I asked him to be brutally critical about my work I got exactly what I asked for. “More contrast! His leg looks like a stump. What’s with her expression? Did you not listen to anything I’ve told you about light? This all looks OK, but put a catch light into his eye so he doesn’t look dead.”
“Not bad or it’s a solid shot” were the highlights of my compliments from Gorman.
As I read through the PPA interview for their 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award I wanted to see if his quotes match my own experience with Gorman. It’s not often that I get to read a story about someone I admire and have known to see if the quotes match my own experience. In the article he is quoted as stating, “I’ve chosen a different approach to the way I want to spend the rest of my life which is lecturing, teaching working on my own fine artwork and making a little wine in Napa Valley for fun.”
Gorman is a great teacher, but more important he is a good soul. What I observed is his passion for photography and those who are brave enough to listen to what he has to say. He his generous with his time and his knowledge. There are always those whose art we admire and sometimes we are let down by the person behind the art. Such is not the case with Gorman. It’s been three years since I spent a week learning from him and to this day when I really need help on a session, I know that I can count on him to give me the straight scoop. Gorman may not be the best looking or tallest guy with notoriety I know, but he’s OK. Congrats on your awards Gorman, I can’t think of anyone more deserving.
I cannot recall any photographer who entered the profession before enjoying the craft as a hobby. I am certainly no different. But as a commercial photographer I’ve come to realize how important personal work is in order to maintain one’s perspective in the world of imagery.
I am fortunate to have clients who allow my views to season the concepts for which they hire me to shoot. Yet in order to maintain my own creativity personal work is vital. This musing is not just about the photographic process, but about how life plays an important role in how I arrive at the personal projects I undertake.
The imagery I present in this musing were taken today, December 1, 2011 yet my journey to this moment started years ago. And for those of you who like to ‘jump ahead’ I am NOT referring to the years it took me to make an image. No, instead I wanted to give an abbreviated summary of how I arrived at today.
Back in 2005 I met the parent of one of my daughter’s friends, Leigh Toldi – a fine art painter. Over time we forged a friendship sharing a mutual bond of raising teenage children. As the years passed and our children became adults we maintained our friendship which transitioned from parenting to art. Leigh taught me much about texture and keeping an open mind as I began my focused journey in photography. As I moved into the world of commercial photography I still maintained my personal blog, yet have a limited amount of time to capture personal work. Leigh continues to visit my personal site, yet only comments on my personal work, even though I find myself posting some commercial stuff there simply to have new content. I always appreciate her private notes to me when one of those pieces strike her fancy.
Last year during a dinner party she held at her home I was introduced to Rob Browne, the sculptor who appears in this musing. Rob and I began talking about sculpture, photography and art in general. Later he contacted me about a potential joint project. After he had visited a local performance gym he was motivated to sculpt an aerialist, but wanted to know if I would be interested in photographing the art form so that he could have reference materials from which to work. I agreed, but due to scheduling conflicts we were never able to make a connection with the performing artist.
Then during a commercial assignment I was hired to photograph a performance by a silk aerialist, Bianca Sapetto. After capturing her performance I knew immediately that the subject Rob and I had discussed had appeared before me, completely by chance. Through my partner Tracy we contacted Bianca and asked if we could meet her for tea to discuss a project. On a sunny San Francisco afternoon, we met at the Ferry Building and presented our idea. During our discussion we learned that Bianca had begun her journey to her art form in an old grove of oak trees in Topanga Canyon. Once her performance schedule was completed, we agreed to meet her in Los Angeles and do an on location shoot of her in Topanga Canyon where she began her aerial art. The form you see Rob sculpting is one of the images taken of Bianca in Topanga Canyon. Our plan is to chronicle the creation of Rob’s sculpture of her until completion.
What is most important about this musing is not the sculpture or the photography, but the journey which led me here. I am blessed to lead a life where I am surrounded by creative individuals from many different art forms, music, performance, dance and fine art. Having had a lifetime of experience in the corporate world, it’s cathartic to now travel through a world where contrived hierarchy is replaced by authentic collaboration, where profit is replaced by the pursuit of expression. Certainly there are the realities of mortgages, utilities and food, but when profit is not the ‘end game’ the fabric of my life has changed. Today three statements stay with me each day – 1. “Mark a whole world happens out there while we sit in our offices that we’ll never be a part of.” - Ron a former boss 2. ”People don’t get into the arts to make money, they are there because they love the expression.” - Melissa WolfKlain 3.“Son, no one will give you anything, so do what you love. I’m just hoping it’s engineering!” - My father
So what I’ve found late in life is this, by letting go serendipity found me. I sincerely hope that it finds you.
To be continued….
Progress on the project as of December 9 2011. Rob adds detail and depth to the sculpture by working by a single light at night. In this manner he is able to easily see the texture he adds layer by layer.
So much of what exists today is virtual, our senses confined to what we see on a screen, experience only with our fingertips or hear through headphones. I certainly never discount the intelligence and effort that goes into developing an ‘app’ or an electronic piece of hardware. To dismiss the abilities that go into how we interact with our new modern world would be hypocritical of me, as I use technology in both my personal and professional life. Yet I still long for what I consider the truly tangible, those items that exude old world craftsmanship.
As has become a fortunate habit in my life an individual I meet leads to another and yet another. Such is the case with this Musing. Years ago while photographing a theatrical performance I wandered down to the orchestra pit to photograph the musicians who are seldom seen during a performance. There was a woman whose pure musical passion was evident as she tuned her instrument; the cello. I snapped a few images of her and through those simple images we became friends. Kris is a remarkable artist and I often fantasize about falling into deep slumber while listening to the sounds of her cello.
Recently Kris posted some images on her Facebook page (technology I enjoy!) her latest ten string cello in the various stages of construction. I was immediately intrigued by the process documented in those photographs. Curled shavings of wood, the face of her cello prior to being attached to the rest and I knew that I wanted to photograph the maker during his process. So Kris arranged for both Tracy and me to meet with Fred Carlson, luthier of “Beyond the Trees.”
After meeting Fred and his wife Suzy who makes handmade violins I was immediately motivated to ask if we could embark on a joint project, to document in photographs and words one instrument from its conception to birth. Fred conveyed to us that an instrument can take up to 1,000 hours to construct and the project may take up to a year to complete. Each element is hand formed and many of his construction tools are handmade as well.
I have a great respect for those who make items with their hands and minds working with materials that are grown from the ground and in this case make sounds that take my mind and imagination to places it has never ventured. I certainly never want craftsmen like Fred to vanish from this life, for they remind us that life is much more than a backlit screen or the swipe of a finger. What he provides all of us is a vital link to the type of craftsmanship we should never forsake.
Throughout my life I can count on one hand times when I have been unable to sleep soundly through the night. I almost immediately start to snore as soon as my head hits the pillow. Those close to me often marvel at my ability to sleep anywhere, on a plane, bus, train, noisy street, literally anywhere and at almost any time. My two adult children wait in horror at movies, elbows at the ready to strike simply because I miss the first ten minutes of any movie simply because I fall asleep and begin to snore.
Those nights where I lay sleepless are vivid in my memory. Barring my nights when infant children needed to be tended to, they include the death of our first son, born stillborn. A small hole in his amniotic sack allowed fluid to drain preventing his lungs from fully developing. The first week when my wife and I decided to separate and I moved into a new house away from what I knew as ‘my family’ home. The guilt and doubt haunted me preventing me from my normal escape into peaceful slumber. When I was 21 and my father was in the hospital for the 29th day and I feared that he would die and I would not be at his side. My fears proved true as I received a call early in the morning to tell me he had passed away in the night. And finally a period of time when my female boss was harassing me so vigorously that I had to file a harassment claim against her which the company eventually found to be valid.
Yet tonight is completely different. I lay awake not due to any series of or single event which causes me anxiety or pain. Instead I lay awake simply because I am excited, but not for any other reason than being excited about my life. Like most adults I have for many years pursued careers which provided fiscal security for myself and my family. We all encourage our children to build their lives around what they truly want to do, yet we give them mixed signals about our parental ‘approval’ about appropriate career choices. I laughed one day when I heard an Asian comedian say “All Asian parents encourage their children to pursue the arts UNTIL they actually want to pursue the arts for a living!” My parents pushed me toward more ‘prestigious and practical’ pursuits; engineering, math, science and business. Some career where I could make a ‘good living’ for myself and my eventual family. I now understand their motivation for me toward those goals, yet I never found true personal satisfaction in those choices no matter how large my direct deposits.
Today as a commercial photographer life is completely different. I am not confined to a Monday through Friday 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM job, weekly management meetings, PowerPoint presentations and annual reviews. So many times I recall longing for the weekend to arrive and reveled in three day weekends. My boss often denied vacation time and her performance reviews were based upon her last and most recent negative memory. In stark contrast my life now consists of working whenever a client needs the type of imagery I can produce along with a work ethic that doesn’t fit the normal ‘artist’ stereotype. I work with people who are truly collaborative, who enjoy the arts even when that means their bank accounts don’t maintain four figures on a monthly basis not including the decimal points. My ‘annual review’ has turned into a daily review since a photographer is only as good as his or her last shoot. There are certainly downsides to this life, but those pitfalls are far less than what I’ve experienced in the corporate world. Creativity is TRULY encouraged and rewarded, what more can anyone ask?
So tonight as I lay sleepless it is because I have two remarkable adult children, I’m healthy, I have a comfortable roof over my head, a woman who loves and supports me, a community of likeminded individuals and a career I simply adore. Over the past ten years there have been countless people who have both supported and helped me in this endeavor, something I can only repay by returning those favors in kind to others.
For those few who have wondered why I have neglected these Musing pages for so long, it’s simply because I didn’t feel I had anything important to say. Tonight is different and now I’m sure I’ll be able to sleep soundly while keeping my partner awake with my snoring. May each of us be so blessed as to have a life which we enjoy. Good night.
Photography is an interesting pursuit. Many people I know appreciate the hobby of photography for the pure joy of expression. Today the results are instantaneous, as the digital world has given us the convenience of the speed of light at our fingertips. “Back in the day” as so many are fond of saying, photography required a certain measure of patience. The time from the shutter snap to holding one’s results in their hand involved days, not nano seconds. I recall times when an entire roll of 36 exposures yielded only one image that I could recognize.
The intent of this Musing is not to become nostalgic or melancholy over the days of film. Hardly. I have only a hobbyist interest in dabbling in film again and only for my personal work. In my experience and observations I have come to realize that in the professional world, what is most important is not what is most important as viewed through the lens.
A while back I happened upon an article written by Ken Rockwell entitled, “How to Go Pro.” After reading Mr. Rockwell’s article, I felt that although it contained a bit of pessimism, in concept and reality I agreed with his views. And after having experience as a ‘pro’ I have found that the elements which most affect my ability to make a living through photography has very little to do with an image, hence my thought, “When what is, is not.” Now don’t get me wrong, when one is getting paid to produce an image, or series of images, there is a baseline which must be met. A certain level of quality and knowledge is necessary otherwise, the client becomes “one in a row” since they will seldom return to your door to give you another assignment.Read More»
Over the past two months Tracy and I have been photographing Burn the Floor which has been in San Francisco’s beautiful Post Street Theatre. Although my first love for this craft is street shooting, I make the majority of my photographic income doing theatrical work. So when I was approached about the possibility of shooting their performance, I was pleased. I had no idea what the show was about, nor did I know anything about the cast. In the beginning I was interested in shooting the show to further improve my ability to shoot high movement, low light situations to improve my ability to shoot on the street.Read More»
I have recently written here about my project with the kids at Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center. Last week was my third week there and was by far the most active. I delivered the kid’s photos along with their presentation boards and we spent the day assembling their photographs on the boards. This week I return to have them present their family’s stories to the rest of the class and then in March the center will hold an art exhibit of their work. Exciting times. But more than the event for me this period in my life is about new discoveries for myself.Read More»
Almost everything one reads, hears or views in today’s world is filled with fear and dread. The American economy is in a state not seen in many decades. Our new President is faced with a daunting tasks amid thousands of workers losing the very jobs they depend upon to feed themselves and their families. Financial institutions are looking toward the Feds for the equivalent of corporate welfare.
But amid the gloom of today’s times, I can say with much enthusiasm that if we all look beyond our own troubles, we can find elements of life that are truly joyful and important. Recently I asked a local San Francisco community center if I could volunteer to run a four week after school photography program. This is my second week of the project and it is truly the highlight of my week. The enthusiasm of the children is absolutely infectious in a way that is difficult to describe. Since my own children are grown, I sorely miss those moments of utter innocent joy and fascination with new discoveries.Read More»
Today I did something I have wanted to do for quite some time, resign from Onexposure or 1x as it is known today. Since September 1 2007 I have been a member of that community and it has allowed me to meet and befriend several individuals from all over the world. It is a good site, one where viewers and contributors can see the work of relatively unknown but skilled photographers.
But change has to occur for me. As good as Onexposure was for me for a year and a half I found it was time to move on. My goals for my photographic work are different than they were a year ago. I’m no longer content posting images just to see them somewhere recognized or exhibited on a wall in a gallery. No, I want my work to do something for people beyond a moment of pause. So I embark on a new adventure using this artform to assist others in discovering a bit about themselves and those close to them. For me it will take many forms; helping a child recognize their own voice and the uniqueness of their own families. For some I may be able to allow their loved ones to view for the first time how their own performing art affects the lives of others. So many times it is difficult to explain to those closest to us how we feel about the passions we pursue. And if just one of my images can convey that pride and talent to someone close to my subject, then I will sleep a happy man and look forward to the next.