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Much Obliged

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Much Obliged

Gratitude comes in many colors.

Gratitude comes in many colors.

I’ve been doing what I do professionally for quite some time now.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned (and, at times, have had to relearn) it’s that no man or woman is an island.  As a creative professional, the folks I’m honored to count as clients count on me to make the buildings they build and the spaces they design shine as boldly and brightly as possible.  And I count on them to keep food on my table and film in my camera. Digitally speaking, of course.

So, as we move into the holiday season – and at a time of uncertainty – I’m determined to keep my attitude one of gratitude.

I’m thankful for all the good work and projects I’ve been able to be part of throughout 2016.  The worlds of real estate and architecture in and around Philadelphia are active and vibrant.  When I travel through the city’s streets, I see new constructions that are enhancing Philadephia’s story, rather than detracting from it.

Light Play weaves color into the fabric of the city.

Light Play weaves color into the fabric of the city.

The interactive Light Play installation at Southstar Lofts is a prime example.  Built as part of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority’s “Percent for Art” program, I was asked to photograph it by Mags Harries and Lajos Heder, the Boston-based artists who designed the project.

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     Pools of color light the way to work or school.

Pools of color light the way to work or school.

Projecting color onto the building and street in synch with the motion of the sun, the effect is a literal representation of the connection between art and commerce – a flourishing rental market helps fund the art, while a vibrant art scene helps create a place where people want to live and businesses want to locate.

I’m grateful to Harries/Heder for choosing me to shine a light on their work.  I’m also grateful for long-standing relationships with companies including CBRE, Jones Lang LaSalle, Newmark, HFF, University of Pennsylvania and EP Henry – as well as new clients like Greystar and Bohlin Cynwinski Jackson. If I’ve left you off the list, my apologies.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t express thanks for all of the people who support me in my business.  My editor and assistant, Paul (who also happens to be my son), deals with my quirks on a daily basis and makes me proud every day.  My office manager, Tanya, keeps all the behind the scenes financial and database tasks flowing seamlessly.  A shout out to all of the freelance photo assistants, Fernando, Matt, Dan, Mike and Jason, who raise the level of my game.  And shout outs to my marketing consultant, Janie Hewson, my writer, Steve Rotterdam, my designer, Aaron Vinton, and my accountant, Bill Irish.

Finally, there’s the rest of my family.  My amazing wife, Bev. My daughter, Lily, whose spirit and ambition make me proud.  My loving mother, Eva, who at 80 sends more texts than I can keep up with. And my brother, Chan, who holds the record for my longest running friendship.

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all.

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Open to the Sky

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Open to the Sky

Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting, Philadelphia, PA

Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting, Philadelphia, PA

“I’m known as a light artist. But rather than be known as someone who depicted light, or painted light in some way, I wanted to have the work be light.”  —James Turrell

James Turrell manipulates light for a living.

Turrell is an artist famous for his installations that deal with light and perception. For the past five decades he has been creating structures and artworks that make viewers think about the way they experience space and reality itself.

I first encountered his work, Meeting, at the art space PS1 in Brooklyn. I remember on a cold winter day going into a room on the top floor and being surprised that the ceiling was missing and thus, the room was open to the sky. I remember sitting on a bench and watching the sky darken as day turned to night.

Turrell is also a Quaker, and when the Quaker meeting in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood decided to build a new meetinghouse from the ground up, they tapped Turrell to design a Skyspace for the structure. I had the pleasure of photographing the building shortly before it opened to the public. E. Allen Reeves, a long time client built the new meetinghouse.

The opening to the sky in 3 positions: closed, half open, fully open.

The opening to the sky in 3 positions: closed, half open, fully open.

The Skyspace is an aperture in the roof of the meetinghouse that slides back to reveal the sky above. A series of lights around the ceiling further manipulate the light to create different moods and feelings.

I have attended Quaker meetings at a meetinghouse near my home, in Havertown, Pennsylvania. Much of the meeting is set aside for quiet meditation. After spending just a few minutes inside Chestnut Hill’s new space, I could understand how Turrell’s vision of a space open to the sky and the elements becomes an inextricable part of the experience itself.

While Turrell makes art from light, Philips Lighting takes a scientific approach to light. For alternate take on light, read my post,  Is This a Set for a Devo Video?

Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting,

Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting,

The metal roof of the meetinghouse uses motors to slide open.

The metal roof of the meetinghouse uses motors to slide open.

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Shimmer Wall

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Shimmer Wall

A new addition to Philadelphia's streetscape is the Shimmer Wall at the Franklin Institute. Last week I shot and put together this video. Thanks to my son, Paul Benson for his editing chops.

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Shoe on the Other Foot

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Shoe on the Other Foot

Modern Living

Modern Living

My wife and I recently completed a total renovation of the bathroom in our 1927 Dutch Colonial house in the suburbs of Philadelphia. In a twist on my day job, my wife and I became amateur interior designers and general contractors. Working on this project gave me a new appreciation for what architects, interior designers, and contractors do on a daily basis.

Before the renovation, the bathroom still featured the original white subway tiles and 86-year old cast iron tub. The old-fashioned tub still functioned, but with the tiles and calking starting to fail, it was time redo the room.

The bathroom pre-renovation.

The bathroom pre-renovation.

Even though our bathroom is small, it has many distinct elements. Bev and I spent much of our time making decisions on the choice of finishes, fixtures and details.

Design is a balance of functionality, appearance, durability and cost.

Design is a balance of functionality, appearance, durability and cost.

The experience gave me a crash course in stone and tile. I love the look and feel of real stone, but modern porcelain ceramics are more practical in the damp environment of a bathroom. We ultimately settled on large porcelain ceramic tiles by Roca, an Italian tile company. The sales reps at Mark Galdo Tile in Lansdowne, PA, were also more than generous with their time and advice.

We decided to go with a simple, modern design with large tiles covering the walls and floor. We also replaced the original hinged door with a pocket door, which is a major space saver.

The pocket door gains valuable space in the 5 foot by 8 foot room.

The pocket door gains valuable space in the 5 foot by 8 foot room.

Our contractor, George Feeser, with his experience and attention to detail, was able to build and create the bathroom that Bev and I imagined. The floors had settled so he had to create a new, level one. We preserved or re-created the original Arts and Crafts door and window trim. Finally, we saved space by replacing our old, bulky cast iron radiator with a sleeker, modern one.

Original cast iron radiator.

Original cast iron radiator.

The modern radiator from Runtal saved valuable space.

The modern radiator from Runtal saved valuable space.

While I won’t be alive in 86 years, I hope that my new bathroom lasts for as long as the old one – until it’s time to renovate again.

The bathroom stripped bare.

The bathroom stripped bare.

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School vs Work

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School vs Work

A reader has posted a question on one of my earlier blog posts,

TJ Swafford Says: Question: I’m currently involved in a speeeeeeeeeendy photography degree at SCAD, Do I even NEED this degree to be successful? Or would I be better served by hooking up with an established photographer and glean what I can from him/her?

TJ,

Do you stay in school and get a degree or leave art school to learn from a photographer?

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There is no easy answer to your question. I am a big believer in education. Yet a Bachelor’s degree in Art is no guarantee of anything. For that matter, a Bachelor’s degree in many fields is no guarantee of anything.

Yes, education is expensive. Developing your mind and expanding your thinking is very valuable.

Everyone’s path is different. If you want to be a commercial or fine artist there is no straight path for your career. Unlike becoming a lawyer or doctor there is not a prescribed way to become an artist. The most successful artists have always blazed their own unique paths.

I know a corporate lawyer who told me that when he was in high school, his father said to him, “You can be a lawyer or a doctor. You choose.” He has ultimately pursued one of the two options dictated by his father.

You do have the power to choose your own path, wherever it may lead. Just by choosing to go to art school you have picked a path off the main stream.

To be an artist, you will need to have a passion and perseverance. You will need to figure out how to pay your bills.

Clients have never asked to see my diploma when they were considering hiring me. Instead they want to see my photographs. But my degree in History of Art and an education in the liberal arts have given me a conceptual framework to see and understand the world. I can discuss architecture with architects. I know what a cap rate is when I talk with a commercial realtor.

It is important to learn how to learn. I do feel that my liberal arts education boosted my ability to learn things on my own, which is an important skill in our dynamic changing world.

I did not take a digital photograph until 2001. Since then I have taught myself many things about digital photography, software and computers.

In the beginning of the digital photography revolution, I imagined I was climbing a mountain of knowledge, learning new technology. Yet as I hiked upward towards the acquisition of more knowledge, the mountain has kept growing and changing. The goal of reaching the top and completely mastering digital photo technology feels perpetually out of reach because the mountain of knowledge is always growing and morphing.

I also feel this way with using and understanding the internet and social media. There will be more changes in the future. So learning how to learn is important.

You will have to make your own decision as far as whether to continue and finish your degree. I don’t know your financial circumstances. If you are piling up student loan debt and school is a huge financial burden, it could make sense to take time off to work in your field and get the perspective of working with a real world photographer.

There are limited opportunities for paid work with photographers. Many commercial photographers are operating with fewer paid staff than before. The freelance model of hiring people is common. And unpaid internships are common, too.

If you leave school and enter the marketplace to find work with a photographer, you will be competing with people who do have degrees in your field. That’s not to say you won’t succeed, it’s just that if fifty people apply for a job, having a degree and experience could move your resume higher up the stack.

Good luck. Whether or not you ultimately finish school–keep learning and keep taking photos.

Keep in mind, one upside to getting a degree, especially a graduate degree, is that you get to wear a crazy hat.

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Paul Stankard: Breathing life into glass

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Paul Stankard: Breathing life into glass

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Paul Stankard is one of the preeminent American glass paperweight artists. With fire and a patient hand, he breathes life into detailed botanical and ethereal forms that are eventually encapsulated inside crystal.

We were fortunate to visit him at his home and studio to shoot images for a feature story in American Style magazine.

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During the shoot Paul, his daughter Katherine, and master assistant David Groeber demonstrated aspects of the glass-working process. Glass is very sensitive to timing and temperature. Greg documented the action while staying clear of flames and annealing ovens.

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Throughout the day Greg shot several different environmental portraits of Paul, so that the editor at American Style would have options in laying out the story. Paul’s beautiful home and studio provided many opportunities for photographs.

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There is currently a retrospective celebrating Paul’s fifty years of work showing at the Wheaton Arts center in Millville, NJ. The show runs until May 8, 2011.

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Business and Creativity

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Business and Creativity

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This weekend I am attending ASMP's Strictly Business 3 series of talks and seminars for professional photographers. In this time of immense change in technology and in the economics of the photography industry, these events have been a positive catalyst for me. It is clear that the world needs images.  While there are forces at work that are reducing prices at the low end of the photography market (think micro stock and cell phone news photos), there is still a need for experienced commercial image makers.

This weekend I have met many other photographers, both younger and older. I'm 52. While it has been fun to engage in nostalgic reminiscences with photographers my age, I am energized by the enthusiasm of many of the younger photographers. It is encouraging to see people in their twenties starting their photo businesses. It has always been a leap of faith to start a photography business--I started my full time business in 1982.

Yesterday one of the four workshops I ended up in was called the Artist Lost and Found taught by Sean Kernan. I entered the wrong hotel meeting room and ended up in Sean's session by accident. The previous sessions during the day on licensing, web sites and marketing were helpful and informative, but by after lunch my brain was filled to the top with prescriptive things I should start doing. Sean focused  on having working commercial photographers re-connect with the wonder and thrill with photography that animated them when they were new photographers.

Sean had the group of about sixteen people do group exercises to open up perception and let go of inhibition. I felt like I was in a theater class.

We stood in a circle and Sean tossed an imaginary potato to someone across the circle. That person mimed tossing to another person and then the imaginary potato became a basketball and then an orange. While doing a child like game the brain had to move into another sphere of imagining and reacting instead of rational thinking. We played another circle game with changing music. One person would move across the circle to touch the next player. Each person had to move to the type of music being played. A formal minuet, hip hop, monks chanting, tribal drum music followed in quick succession as each person improvised movement to that music.

What's the connection with photography? Every creative endeavor needs to tap into intuition and gut decision making. Being open to the new is a crucial part of being creative.

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Vivian Maier

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Vivian Maier

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Fame and recognition can depend on dumb luck. When John Maloof purchased the contents of an abandoned storage locker he never expected to find a treasure trove of photographs by a completely unknown artist. In spite of her talent, during her own lifetime, Vivian Maier's work was likely unknown to anyone but the people closest to her.

Now there is an

exhibit in Chicago

of her work and there are many articles online, including the 

New York Times

. Much of her work can be seen at the

blog

set up by him. Originally from France, Maier lived in New York City and worked as a nanny, photographing on her own. Like Atget and Belloq, her work has become known after her passing.

Her work from the 1950s anticipates work by Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. There is an affinity to Robert Frank's work.  Similar to Arbus, Maier used a square format camera and captured photos of real people on the street. I have always been a sucker for good street photography. It's a delight to look through her images.

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This shot reminds me of Robert Frank's work. There is an air of glamour and mystery immersed in an ordinary night. Who is this woman with a while stole and puffy dress walking towards a 1957 Chevy? Why is she alone?

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I love how the balloon blocks the face of the man sitting with the baby. Just as the baby yearns to touch the balloon, I yearn to see his face, yet I know I never will.

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Maier shot many details of hands and textures. They are visually intriguing and tell a story of a person without showing the person's face. The geometry of the triangular blanket and the itsy bitsy circle of the watch face play against the circles and rectangles on the woman's dress.

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Maier's shot of the Sphinx and pyramid interrupted by a horse's ass is hilarious and ahead of its time. It shows the messiness and absurdity of the real world at a big tourist site. I speculate that she was a nanny on a family trip to Egypt.

She was an on-the-street spy who created surreal images with a camera. Given that the world almost missed Maier's work, I wonder how many other artistic treasures sit undiscovered amidst the tons of work created by unsung artists.

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Jeanne-Claude

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Jeanne-Claude

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Jeanne-Claude, the wife and collaborator of Christo died recently and yesterday a memorial service was held at the Met in New York City. I learned that the two of them were born on the same day, June 13, 1935. They first met in 1958.

I remember seeing Christo talk at the Carnegie Art Museum in Pittsburgh in about 1977 or 1978 at a screening of films about his work Running Fence and Valley Curtain. I was impressed by the energy, scale and sheer chutzpah of designing and producing a work that was 24 miles long. Running Fence was a fabric fence that started at the Pacific coastline in California and ran inland for 24 miles.

I have always admired that fact that Christo and Jeanne-Claude raised the money to produce their expensive and temporary projects on their own. In college I even contemplated doing my own Christo-like installation, dreaming of roping off the Arts Quad at Cornell. I made some tentative plans and even took photos of the area, but scheming is easier and cheaper than doing.

Jeanne-Claude was the silent partner, the wife behind the scenes. An article in the NY Times mentions that even though she generated ideas and worked on many projects with Christo, they only started to credit her name in 1994. It is curious that a woman who was an avant garde artist lived as a nameless collaborator in the quiet shadow of her more famous husband.

Since they were partners in their work it is difficult to assess what each of their contributions were. And since their work was as much the logistics and political maneuvering of gaining permission to take over large areas of public space, as it was the aesthetics of the final installation, it is difficult to judge their work in the same terms of say judging a painting or a photograph.

In February of 2005 I traveled to New York to visit their Central Park winter project, The Gates. The bright large scaled orange gates jumped out of the dreary gray winter landscape of Central Park, a magnet for visitors. One friend at the time commented that The Gates was a 1970s idea that was finally realized in 2005. While the sheer scale and number of gates was impressive along with their ability to draw people, at some level the piece had an emptiness.

The funniest and most telling commentary on The Gates was done by Stephen Colbert, then on the Daily Show and billed as their Senior Conceptual Art Correspondent.

"I used to think 21 million dollars could be used to achieve something noble, like building a hospital wing, but The Gates has forced me to reconceptualize what what 21 million dollars can be used for. In this case, like, redecorating a bike path," deadpans Colbert.

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