R2-D2 - Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Mechanical Engineering

Most of my images involve people. Until very recently, I don't think I'd ever photographed anything that you'd call a "robot." So even though R2-D2 (or "Artoo") may be an iconic character from one of the most famous science fiction stories of all time, he’s definitely outside the realm of my usual subject matter. Take my word for it though, when you meet him in person, he's at least as expressive as most of the humans I know. R2-D2 (3 of 6)

So how did I get access to this little blue guy? Well, among TV and movie watchers there’s a subset of fans who want a more visceral connection to a story than simply watching it unfold on a screen. Places like the Replica Prop Forum and the R2-D2 Builder’s Club cater to these fans, offering them a like-minded community of enthusiasts, instructions, encouragement, and even access to limited runs of custom-made difficult-to-find components. This droid’s builder, Alec Bialek, is a mechanical engineering student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Alec takes his Artoo to events like the premier of The Force Awakens at SLO's historic Fremont Theater, giving fans a chance to meet the famous droid in person. After seeing photos of Artoo at a recent school fundraiser, I contacted Alec, and he generously granted me an exclusive one-on-one to meet Artoo and make something along the lines of a 'portrait of an astromech droid.'

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R2-D2 (4 of 6)

Alec’s Artoo isn’t completely finished yet - Alec is still working on the feet and the base of the body - which is why I mostly photographed Artoo from the "waist" up. When those last pieces are done, Alec is planning to weather Artoo so he looks a little more battle-worn, consistent with his appearance in the films.

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The interesting part of making these images, at least for me, was exploring the space between portraiture and still life. Even in the Star Wars universe, Artoo isn't quite a living thing, yet somehow he's imbued with a very strong sense of agency and personality. That sense is borne partially from the puppetry and sound effects that you experience when you watch the film (or, if you're lucky like me, when Alec fires up his remote control and has Artoo run circles around you while tweeting & whistling). But it also has a lot to do with Artoo's basic visual design. He's hardly anthropomorphic, but when his big, black, glassy eye is pointed in your direction, it's hard not to feel like you're being seen.

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That sense is what I tried to capture in these last two images, and what I would very much like to capture with other similar subjects. If anybody reading this happens to know someone who's built other character droids from popular sci-fi - such as WALL-E, Johnny Five, Marvin, Bender, H.E.L.P.e.R. or others, please don't hesitate to share this post with them, and have them drop me a line.

Jonathan Stout, Los Angeles Bandleader - Arroyo Grande

Jonathan Stout is the bandleader of the Campus Five and the Jonathan Stout Orchestra based in Los Angeles, in addition to four other swing and jazz bands of various styles, sizes, and configurations. Jonathan is also one of my oldest friends, and during a recent visit to Arroyo Grande, he asked if I would help him produce some new promotional images in the visual style of the great jazz bandleaders of the 1930s. We reviewed available images of musicians like Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Charlie Christian, and talked about what worked well about the best of these historical photographs. Jonathan also showed me some example advertisements, so I could see how he wanted to use the images to promote his music. blog-post-(2-of-3)

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The above two images were made on my go-to film - Kodak Portra 160 - which converts beautifully to black & white. (Somewhat to my amusement, it occurred to me that this is the first shoot I've ever done where my old medium-format film camera might qualify as inappropriately modern technology for the task at hand.)

After we shot a few rolls, including photographing Jonathan with three different gorgeous vintage guitars (for those interested: a 1932 Gibson L-5, a 1937 Gibson ES-150, and a National Style 1 Tricone), I made some more intimate portraits of Jonathan using a long-expired roll of Agfa XRS 1000. I half-guessed at the proper exposure, and while I was in the ballpark, the resulting images were washed out and super low-contrast (hopefully due to the age of the film and no error on my part!). A black & white conversion and a little love in the digital darkroom brought these photographs back to life, but the film grain in this final image is 100% analog.

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My Dad, the Welder

My dad is a welder by trade, and a super handy guy. When I was a kid, he would ask me to give him a hand fixing and building stuff around the house, from simple things like holding a flashlight for him while he worked on an engine, to complex skills like plumbing my treehouse (yeah, I had running water in my treehouse!). Unfortunately, I was always a lot more interested in playing Nintendo than I was in helping, and didn't pick up many of the skills that he tried to pass on to me. The good news is that, in the age of Google and instructional YouTube videos, I'm mostly able to scrape by when something simple around the house needs fixing. But when it comes to welding, the skill that my dad built his career on, I'm almost totally inexperienced, and maybe also a little bit terrified of burning the hell out of myself with molten steel. Dad (1 of 4)

Dad (2 of 4)

Thankfully, when I needed to build a metal gate and a handrail for our sideward, my dad offered to come down to Arroyo Grande to help. I doubt that he would have guessed the payment for his help was going to be a portrait session.

(In the interest of full disclosure, he also got his own room with a super comfortable bed to sleep in, some pretty tasty meals, and at least a few beers.)

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Dad (4 of 4)

I'm really happy that I took the time to photograph my dad while he was visiting. Originally, I wanted to document him in his "work" clothes, since that's how I remember him from when I was a kid, but I'm glad that we also made some images of him in his street clothes. (Yes, the hat is a regular accessory.)

I guess it's a little morbid to acknowledge, but there'll be a time when my dad won't be able to come down and help me muddle my way through a project. As much as I'd prefer not to think about that time, when it does come I bet I'll be especially glad to have these images then.

Why Film? And Why Medium Format?

For every cover of SLO Life that I shoot, Tom (the editor of the magazine) asks me to write a couple short paragraphs about the portrait session. The first time Tom included this small write-up in the magazine was when I started shooting the covers using my old analog Hasselblad, rather than my digital gear. As a result, when writing these pieces, I've often discussed the process of shooting film, thinking that it may be interesting to older readers who remember being limited to a mere 36 exposures per roll, or to younger readers who've grown up accustomed to the instant feedback of digital photography. What I haven't written about is why I choose to shoot film. The answer is simple but can easily get complicated... I shoot film so that I can shoot medium format.

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I'll spare you the plodding explanation of different film/sensor formats. There's plenty of that kind of thing on the web already, and trust me when I say that most of it is tremendously boring. Pretty much all you need to know is that most digital camera sensors are small, but medium format film is big. Is there bigger film than medium format? Oh yeah. Are there also bigger digital sensors? Yup. But if we're limiting ourselves cameras that you can carry around relatively easily, and can afford to buy without a taking out second mortgage, the formula holds true: film = big, digital sensors = small.

Why does that matter? Physics.

The bigger your film plane - whether it's a digital sensor or a piece of chemical emulsion - the faster things go from sharp where the camera is focused to blurry where it's not. Have you noticed how, when you take a picture with your cellphone or a compact camera, pretty much everything is in focus, whether it's close to the lens or in the background? That's because the sensor is tiny. Sometimes you want to have everything in focus, but sometimes you don't. Bigger digital cameras with bigger sensors than your cellphone let you make this choice to a degree, but with medium formal film, the focus falls off from sharp to blurry very fast. In these portraits of Eric Meyer, my camera is focused on Eric's eyes, and you can see that they're tack-sharp, along with his nose and mouth, which are all about the same distance from the camera as his eyes. But even just a tiny bit further from the lens the focus falls off, and things get softer and softer as they recede into the background.

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Eric Meyer (4 of 4)

When I look at these pictures, I really lock in on Eric's eyes and his expression, because they're super sharp. Anything that might be distracting is quite soft, so it doesn't pull attention away from the center of his face. For me, the effect that I get using medium format film for a close headshot like this evokes a sense of sitting across from a person, having an intimate conversation with them. That sense of intimacy is a critical part of why these pictures work for me, and why I enjoy working with medium format film.

Heidewood

Heidewood 2 My good friend Greg Heide is a woodworker. He built one of the cabinets in my home, built a deck for our outdoor shed, loaned me his mitre saw, and has given me advice on more than a few other projects here and there. Last year, in an effort to repay Greg for all of his help, I offered to make some portraits of him for his website.

Well, his website is still in the works (these things take time). But while I'm prepping to shoot some new work over these next few weeks, I've been revisiting some of my favorite portrait sessions from the last year, and this shoot with Greg kept sticking in my mind. So, even though his website is still in process, and it'll be a while before most of the images have a chance to get out into the wild, I thought I would share just a couple of my personal favorites here on the blog.

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Rick Stollmeyer - SLO Life Magazine

Rick Stollmeyer SLOLife 1 The latest issue of SLO Life Magazine just hit the stands, featuring my cover of Rick Stollmeyer, CEO of MindBody. The interview gets into the nitty gritty, but Rick started MindBody with a friend in his garage in 2001, and has turned it into one of San Luis Obispo's biggest (and coolest!) employers, not to mention one of the fastest-growing companies in the country. Suffice it to say that it was a real pleasure and a great opportunity to photograph Rick for the magazine.

These are a few of my favorite images from my time with Rick. If you're interested, you can check out the photos that ran on the cover and inset over on my Tumblr.

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Rick Stollmeyer SLOLife 2

Wife in the Kitchen Studio

Business Brittany 4 Brittany needed a new business portrait for work, so this past weekend we set up The Super Professional Home Studio in the kitchen.

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After we knocked out the portrait that she needed, it seemed like a pretty good time to dig out some of expired film sitting in my freezer and run it through the Hasselblad. We started with a few Polaroids, just to make sure everything was dialed in, and then Brittany patiently gave me an entire 24 frames. I got the developed roll back today, and put it through my Super Professional Home Film Scanner.

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Movember - San Luis Obispo

At the end of November I made portraits of local participants in the Movember fundraiser for men's health. Movember is a month-long fundraising event for which men volunteer to grow moustaches in order to solicit donations for prostate cancer and other cancers that affect men. Since I can't grow much of a moustache myself, I crashed a friend's end-of-the-month Mo-party in order to photograph the participants and help them earn a bit more for a good cause.

I've posted more of the images in a portfolio, here.

Arianna and Ali - Los Angeles

I photographed Arianna and Ali, along with several other very pretty girls, for a good friend who is working to market her hair/makeup services to wedding clients. She'll be using the photos in color for her work, but I really liked the classic feel that these photos took on when converted them to black & white.