Boxing Yourself in to Free Yourself

Boston feels at times like a second home. It's a quick ride of tracks running out from Penn Station and up against the coast of New England. The city is a welcome change of pace from the 24/7 manic pace of NYC. The advantage of the train comes into full force when you are trying to think or be creative. You've locked yourself into a carriage for 4 hours with no wi-fi and nothing to do but whatever you brought with you. Sure you could talk to people, but this is 2014. We aren't friendly to strangers anymore. I find that I do some of my best thinking on trains and airplanes. If I had better discipline I'm sure I could have the same output anywhere, but it makes such a good excuse to travel.

I went to Boston to help my long-time friend Dane record some contemporary marimba pieces. He is all about making music accessible and pushing the envelope of what you can do with "classical” instruments. From his site:

"My goal is to create an open environment where musicians of all communities can enjoy the existence of a moment. Enjoy art for what it is: a trigger for an experience, be it emotional, physical, or intellectual. Try not to get bogged down with the analysis of a piece of music while you're first hearing it. Try to let the whole piece exist on its own before you tear it apart."

He also asked me to shoot a few images for his website. Hours and hours of discussion about aesthetics and branding followed. We had to sort out his artistic visions and how that would translate to photos. At least that's how I thought we should go about it. So I asked him for examples of photos he liked, his artistic mission statement, how he envisioned using the photos, and lots of other things. We talked at length and the conversation varied wildly, covering the state of classic music, how polaroids work, what other musicians do, how great Ke$ha is, and the current state of stand-up comedy. Dane and I can talk for hours about anything, but eventually we settled on shooting polaroids. What Dane liked was the idea that you are just freezing a moment. You don't get to go into photoshop later and fix things. it's just a snapshot and sometimes even the colors are unpredictable. That's how Dane thinks people should approach music. In the moment, with full attention.

Although I do own a few polaroid cameras of varying age, film is expensive, and from my past experiences photographing Dane he is not the most willing subject. Due mostly to the latter reason I decided to simulate shooting polaroids (and save money on film) by locking down the settings on my camera. I chose settings that closely mimic the SX-70: ISO 160, 50MM lens, F8 aperture, shutter speed no faster than 1/175, fixed on-camera flash at full power for F8. In post I used the VSCO cam polaroid set to get as close to polaroid colors as possible. I did not allow myself to adjust exposure or anything else you might adjust in camera raw. I had to get it right in camera and then change the color later.

For the most part, this really helped create an aesthetic throughout all the photos. They feel like I picked up a disposable camera and just started shooting. It's no coincidence that I flipped through a Terry Richardson book the week before the shoot. Terry is a master at capturing moments and showing them raw. I did find myself relenting for one portrait where I really wanted a dramatic shallow depth of field, but hey sometimes you have to break the rules, even self-imposed ones. Because I had locked all the technical bits and pieces down I was more focused on talking to Dane and getting him comfortable than what my camera was doing. The subject is what’s most important in a photo and making my camera into a point-and-shoot helped me drill down to the essence of what we were trying to do. I would recommend that any photographer try this. Either with a real polaroid camera or with any old camera really. Go box yourself in to free your mind.