Looking BackwardPosted on: Feb 13, 2017
Standing in an orderly row like the Royal Palace Guard are twelve four drawer file cabinets filled with over 25 years of photography. From proof sheets to black and white prints to 4×5 original film, these file cabinets hold the archive of my professional life until 2006 when I switched from film to digital. Buried in the files are maybe twenty to thirty buildings each for firms like Kaplan McLaughlin, HOK and Gensler among countless one off projects for firms either long gone or architects and designers regretfully deceased. There are a few file drawers full of amazing houses shot for some of the best magazines of the era and a prodigious collection of decorator show-houses from the 1980s to 1999.
We have decided to do some house cleaning. Not everything I photographed in 1985 was wonderful. A lot of it was just compromised work that took every ounce of my creative spirit to make look good. We drew a line at 1995. Everything before that date would get a keen eye for its historic, aesthetic or commercial value. If it met any of those criterion, we kept it. Otherwise, it went into the recycle bin. We archived the remaining images in the hope that some library, university or museum in the future may find them as interesting as we do. Film from 1995 to 2006 will stay in the file cabinets and digital files live on two separate hard-drives and an optical drive.
We are still in the middle of this project with stacks of film-laden banker boxes sitting in the studio. After going through about half the boxes I have reached a few easy conclusions. First, film was just an awful medium. Getting it right was always a challenge. Film had its own rules and if you tried to break them, there was often hell to pay. I think the reason I shot so many office interiors in the 1980s was because I figured out how to work with Ektachrome in fluorescent lit environments and not have everything look a sickly pale green. I also knew how to light spaces with both flash and hot lights. That was necessary when shooting film.
Second, styles change, decade by decade. The trendy Post Modern interiors of the 80s and 90s look almost comically silly today. They may come back in 30 years. Who knows? Classic design, whether Modern or Traditional still looks good. I am posting a few residential and hospitality jobs shot over thirty years ago that still hold up to a critical eye. Amazingly, most of the Ektachrome is as vibrant as the day it was shot. It has not deteriorated. Kudos to Eastman Kodak for that.
Gradually, I became a better photographer. The images shot in the early 1990s looked significantly better than the ones in the early 1980s. Slowly, the compositions improved, the lighting refined, the colors more natural. Today the digital world has opened up possibilities that were almost impossible then. From drone shots, to layering of exposures, to painting out annoying exit signs and smoke alarms, our ability to create the “perfect image” is almost a click away. The “good old days” of film were not that good, but that doesn’t prevent us from waxing nostalgic.
On My Day Off
Somewhere in the basement in a box of memorabilia is a report card from my first grade teacher with a two sentence note stating that Russell needed some help in reading, but he was the best artist in the class. The fine arts have always been a part of my life. I think I took as many art and design classes as I did architecture ones at Berkeley. It has been many years since I picked up a paintbrush or a charcoal stick, but just last year I decided to start drawing again. When I was younger, painting was both craft and catharsis. Now when I draw, it is just creative pleasure. I am still rusty and I know enough not to quit my day job. As I stare at my easel in a class at the local art center, I am thoroughly impressed by the level of skill and artistry of my fellow classmates, all mature adults with busy lives. Whether a one minute gesture or an hour-long pose, my mind is completely engaged in finding and creating beauty. Does this indulgence into fine art make me a better photographer? I hope so.