Hey friends -- Happy July. My seven-month delay in making a blog post is inexcusable but not really all that surprising. (Been “busy”?, scattered-brained, something like that?) Oops. Mostly this is due to the fact that I have been cutting some time away from my personal film photography projects and pushing towards developing a stronger base of freelance clients. I used to scoff at this idea (dunno why) and was pretty narrow-minded as far as what I thought I could accomplish as a photographer. Or more importantly, what I wanted to accomplish. I would say things like, “I will never be a wedding photographer.” I guess I thought it was something I wasn’t capable of doing, didn’t want to do, or would absolutely hate doing. This was so ridiculous of me, because it turns out none of that is true. I started working for some wedding photographers and realized that shooting weddings was just an extension of what I already do when I shoot my large-format portraits. Wait - I somehow magically translated my skillset that involves approaching naked strangers in the river and applied it towards my bright future as a wedding photographer? Well, it turns out all the same components are there, just delivered and executed in a different format. They both are dealing with humans and emotions and capturing these fleeting moments. Both embrace the awkward and the unexpected. Both have been challenging me in different ways and helping me evolve (is that a stretch?) as photographer and individual.
Anyway, not going to flood this post with wedding photos but here is a link to my new sister-site, Joanna Kulesza Weddings . I am going to flood this post with some medium-format film I shot while in Nicaragua back in March! Below you will find my narrow document of San Juan del Sur. Nothing remarkable in here - Most common photos taken were of dogs and cemeteries. You’ve been warned.
Fortunately, I have just recently been able to bring a lot of my energy and focus back to my Creek series. I have been challenging myself to make more work than ever before for this project. In the past it was difficult for me to give it merit, since the story I am telling here isn’t linear or easy to define. I decided to quit stressin’ so much, and just go out and shoot. This *revolutionary* technique is proving to (mostly) work in my favor. I still constantly manage to fuck up film, no matter how many times I have done this before, or how meticulous or prudent I am.
Much more to come with this ongoing body of work. If you want to see some behind the scenes or process work with the Creek project, you should follow the Instagram account, I Love Texas Photo. I will be taking over the account for a few days sometime this week and posting iPhone snaps as I make portraits of strangers while lurking along the Austin Greenbelt.
Aaaaaand last but not least, the documentary film Jackson that I was so lucky to play a minor role in as a Production Assistant will be screening at Babes Fest on July 28th. I have some all-day guest passes to give away, so please get in touch if you are interested. First hi or hello will be the lucky recipient of a guest pass - don't start message me all at once now! This is a FREE pass to see comedy, film, and music by badass babes. AND an after party. Just sayin'.
Talk to you soon, friends -- new and exciting photo things always on the horizon.
“Why do you only photograph in film?”
This succinct, but super relevant question is one that I encounter frequently but have an unusually difficult time answering. I recently found myself in this predicament once again after I told a photo-friend that I was heading out to East Texas for a few days to photograph small towns over the holiday. Their response was an underwhelming one, after I told them I’d be shooting exclusively in film -- “Oh, that’s right. You only shoot film.”
To set the record straight, I don’t only shoot my photographs in film, but it has been my unwavering medium of choice by far, since all the way back to my junior high school days. With all things film, vinyl, & vintage at an unprecedented high in popularity, people are curious and skeptical of the avid film photographer’s motives in an age where digital is cheap and instantly gratifying.
So why then? Is it because shooting film is hip? Is it because it’s trendy?
Instinctively I want to go with a cop-out answer. Something like, “Well, I did it first, way before it was cool,” which is a total bullshit answer - completely unremarkable at best. No one should exceptionally care that I learned to shoot pictures on film, and that my current projects are all made using a 4x5 view camera. In all honesty, it took me years to actualize a truthful answer to “Why film?” Beyond discovering the technical and artistic advantages of shooting medium and large-format film over digital, I finally landed on the one-word, million dollar answer to shut up all the skeptics, the scrutinizers, & the haters - it’s ritual.
It’s a weighty, loaded word that means something entirely differently for every person under the burning sun. We dunk our babies in holy water, pop corks and say cheers. We hold hands before eating meals, and bring food during times of grief and suffering.
The ritual of shooting film is tedious and often unpragmatic. It’s risky and expensive, delicate and finicky. But most importantly, above all that jumble, it is romantic, nostalgic, and extremely tangible. It’s the whole thing.
You buy the film, and you load the film. You take care in each shot because you are limited to a roll rather than the endless abyss of a memory card. You listen, engage, and interact, rather than fire rapidly and move on. You are left with the allure and mystery of the images to come. Your film sits undeveloped for sometimes weeks at a time, until - ahh yeah, that’s right! That little roll, perfectly sealed, shot, and corked up. It comes back to the forefront of your focus, and it’s finally time to develop that little unassuming nugget, filled with the images of I can’t even remember exactly what now, but I know it must be something great otherwise I would not have made it a point to take a picture.
And then there is the anticipation of picking up the film, and then scanning the film. And after that it’s sitting in a coffee shop for endless hours, tweaking colors and cleaning thick coats of dust and debris in Photoshop as the negatives finally start coming to life.
And this lil’ rant wasn’t meant to sound as full of cheese or drama as it might come across to some. This is my slightly sugarcoated love affair with the ritual of shooting film. It is a very lengthy and intensely personal experience for me, and I just love it all.
That's Liz, on Christmas Eve.
So that being said, how strange it is that a person with such an apparent respect for ritual should find themselves disregarding it almost entirely on Christmas Day - one of the most celebrated, ritualistic, & holy days of the year.
This year on Christmas morning, I found myself in a very peculiar and unexpected place. I was walking through a small cemetery in Athens, Texas with my good friend Liz Moskowitz - a place where we have no friends or relatives buried, or any connection to the city at all really. We were driving around the deserted Athens town square when we passed by this grassy patch of earth, speckled with tombstones and several limply waving confederate flags pressed into the dirt. At the beginning of this trip, I made a half-hearted request to stop at small-town cemeteries but I didn’t expect us to actually drive up to one so conveniently. I guess when you’re visiting a town with a population of less than 13,000, the possibilities of coming across things are inevitable - not if, but rather when.
We started to wander around the mostly empty gravesites, and I came across an older woman who was knee-deep in dirt kneeling beside a grave. She was digging holes and planting a bounty of artificial flowers in every bright hue and shade imaginable. I said hello to her. “No english,” she hastily replied. And then I made a picture-taking motion because the bird’s eye image of her surrounded by artificial flora was just screaming to be photographed. But she shook her head vigorously and I quickly walked away, embarrassed and ashamed that I had bothered her during a time of intense grief.
I started to scold myself for seeping my insensitive voyeurism into the energy of this memorial site - and on top of that, on Christmas Day. I never visit cemeteries mainly because my immediate family is buried in Poland, and because for the most part, no one very close to me has died yet. But Christmas just seemed like such a powerful day of the year to pay respects to loved ones and I was curious to see what kind of people it brought out to a place of memory.
It was at that point that we met Gary - an older man in a tucked-in shirt and cowboy hat. He was lingering by one of the more elaborate tombstones - one with a sitting bench, and a decorative cast of a saddle and set of cowboy boots. We sparked a conversation with Gary almost immediately. We learned he was visiting his wife Freda’s gravesite. It is also the spot where Gary will eventually be buried too. Gary tells us that Freda died two years ago from breast cancer, that she was beloved by people in city of Athens, and that he mostly visits her grave alone. Gary tells us she was his soulmate. His demeanor was kind and calm, and I think he mostly just wanted to talk to somebody about his wife.
He agreed to be photographed, and I agreed to email him his photographs. I did just that the other day but still haven’t heard back yet from Gary. I am anxious to hear if he likes the pictures. Most of all I hope that they bring him some type of comfort in memory.
Gary Lee Baker, b. August 17, 1955 -
Nick and Tanya, Christmas morning
First of all, apologies are in order! I'm so, so sorry, blog, and I'm so, so sorry subscribers/friends/Mom. I've neglected you all for the last two months and that's not cool. I didn't mean to leave such a big blank space between notes, but the East Austin Studio Tour happened to fall in the middle of that blog post-less period, and the election was nothing short of a brain melter, and I have never successfully kept up with a blog before in the past, so why should this time be any different? Retract that last little bit of negativity, please -- I'm moving forward with my reflections from 2016, and I'll be doing that by sharing my iPhone with you.
The Idea of You is a new, ongoing baby-project that I decided to call a "something" after noticing these recurring themes and patterns in my most prized iPhone photos. When I looked at all of these images side by side, I discovered a collection of moments that I felt a deep emotional reaction to. I immediately wished I had a place to let them breath - somewhere outside of the Instagram-cell phone void.
So I uploaded these photos to my website and printed them off in book form under the guise, The Idea of You. (My absolute favorite part about projects is thinking of a title. The title blankets the images, giving them a sense of validity as they start to take on new forms.)
The subject matter within The Idea of You is completely different from my usual, straight up, in-your-face portrait projects. These pictures are moody and not transparent- vague impressions rather than concrete shapes. They were taken at unsuspecting times, when my best camera wasn't ready at hand. In these camera-less moments when a picture was begging to be taken, I would completely beat myself up about it. The thought of missing the potential drove me absolutely crazy. Lately, I've been learning just to shake it off and make due with what I have in hand.
This one photographer I used to work for always comes to mind in these instances. She would scold me for constantly whining about my photo equipment - or extreme lack of it. I graduated college and entered the professional photo world with a terrible digital camera that I would use as a scapegoat to excuse my shitty photographs. Even though I still let myself believe there was some truth behind that claim, this photographer's words have stuck with me over time. "The best camera is the one that you've got, Jo." Translation? "Quit your bitching, and just get it done."
The picture above was taken at the prom for the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which is documented each year by photographer Sarah Wilson. I have voluntarily assisted her on this long-term project for the past few years. Each recurring year, the experience is consistently emotional and indescribably humbling.
The photo up above was taken on one of my very first days at my new job. (Not the jewelry store, to be clear -- & no direct pun intended there, either.)
This was an important week for me- the first week I officially gave up my freelance photography and bartending life for a full-time, nine to five one. The boy I was dating at the time dropped me off at this exact block where Kruger's sits on the corner of, but about 20 minutes ahead of schedule. I was a little nervous so rather than go into the office building early, I spent those 20 minutes looping the same block over and over again. During my last loop around, I walked straight past this scene, but had an immediate wave of regret as soon as I passed it- the coulda-shoulda-taken-a-photo-god-dammit voice, buzzing obnoxiously deep inside my skull. I knew it wouldn't be a groundbreaking, front-cover, life-changing cellphone photo of any kind, but even just the idea of it was enough to get me worked up. I decided to turn back around.
I made a picture-taking motion towards the jeweler through the window. My fellow nine to five-er smiled, gave me a thumbs up, and continued setting the diamonds out for the day.
This snap up above was taken in my neighborhood, February 14th, 2016.
This project - this diary - this scratch pad of my life has been scribbled over so many times that it's getting harder and harder to make the words out clearly. But beneath all the scribble and all the scratches, I can still make out distant impressions of the things at hand. I see pictures of people that have drifted away, and I see moments of joy. I see the spontaneity, the uncertainty, and the isolating loneliness that have very much defined how I perceive myself and my past life experiences. I see the things I like about myself and the things that I loathe.
And through all of this I wonder how much is even transparent to an outside observer and how much gets totally lost on account of the fact that this is my personal diary and I'm only gonna let you read some parts of it anyways, while I white out and blot the dull parts -- or even worse, the really ugly parts. Maybe reading my blotted out diary is not that interesting to begin with. Maybe I just need to write more and white out less. Maybe you like the of idea of The Idea of You, or maybe you don't.
Whatever it is, I'll be cool with. But I'm going to ask you a favor either way. I want to use this blog post to welcome any comments, critiques, and perspectives. Send me a note! Love mail, hate mail, it's hardly-worth-my-time mail -- I'd welcome it all. How do you initially feel about this as a project? Would you want to see more? What about it is interesting, and what is absolutely not?
I generally don't ask for validity, but I'm really interested to hear your thoughts. And I generally don't know what I'm doing anyways, but I'm really enjoying these scribbles as of late, and the anticipation of many more to come.
Marfa, Texas has been this ethereal, urban legend of a city that I didn’t believe existed beyond Instagram and the trademark Prada store sculpture. Going there is a luxurious treat for most, and an unquestionable rite of passage for Austinites. So when an invite to my former bosses Marfa wedding landed in my lap, it took me little time & contemplation to get this trip in the works and marked onto my calendar. I took off with a friend early on a Friday morning, and we were quickly booking it 80 miles per hour down the I-10 - 8 glorious hours of coasting and roasting in my AC-less car. The weak radio connection could barely crackle over the wind whipping through my wide-open windows. ("I'm gonna turn on the AC!" ....and then the windows would proceed to roll down.) Us overheated passengers stifled our whines and endured the heat quietly, shirtless and soaking in our own sweat. We were undeniably and anxiously bound for far West Texas.
Before landing in Marfa, there was a unanimous decision to camp the night prior in the beautiful Davis Mountains. Within those mountains lives McDonald Observatory which hosts a bunch of wild telescopes and some of the darkest skies in the continental US. It was an ideal spot for stargazing and to see the full moon rise above stormy, clouded skies.
At 7000 ft above sea level, the air temp was a dry 60-ish degrees when the sun finally set, making for some amazing outdoor sleeping weather and a nice break from the typical Texas heat. There was a storm brewing all day long and some overnight rainfall, but come sunrise, there was no leftover evidence of the evening thunderstorm. Marfa was just a quick 30 minute drive away down one single, long desert road.
Once Marfa came into view, it was quickly apparent how small the city actually is. Image one long Main Street with a small surrounding suburb plopped in the middle of the desert. Nothing commercially recognizable in site - just a mix of vacant looking buildings intertwined amongst ultra-modern galleries and chic hotels.
The highly coveted El Cosmico was my first pick to check out, but it looked at little... deserted, and kind of lack-luster in the bright daylight. (On Instagram and I'm sure at nighttime, the place sparkles with glowing tee pees, wood-fired hot tubs, and the trendiest Texans you'll ever come across. The biggest highlight for me was visiting the Chinati Foundation - home to permanent artworks by Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. The art here literally lives and breathes within the landscape along 300+ acres of Marfa desert.
The wedding was super chic and elegant, and passed by in a swift and blurry fashion. I saw friendly faces that I hadn't seen in years, and overall the air was bright & light. Even if I could never imagine living there, Marfa had definitely charmed me through flickers of subtle, simple moments.