Category Archives: personal flavor

personal flavor

Swimming with the Fishes

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Please allow me a moment of tourist photography here. Wendy and I went down to Atlanta for about 36 hours in a quick “before the insanity comes” getaway. While the goal of finding some warmer weather utterly fell to 35-degree mornings, we did have an amazing time swimming in this very tank, including whale sharks, the largest fish in the world. There also was a Hammerhead in the tank that came awfully close, but we were promised it wouldn’t eat us … much.

Lens: 35mm f/1.4
Camera: Nikon D3s


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Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

You can always count on the Adirondacks for a White Christmas. I’m spending Christmas Day the way I spent my year — travelling and processing photos, since there are some fantastic end-of-season weddings left to show you. 2010 was truly a fantastic year, blessed with a wonderful girlfriend, my fantastic friends and family, and sharing so much with so many wonderful clients. Also, I’m more than a little thankful that tomorrow I am headed to spend the New Year in Tuscany and Florence.

And there are good things to come in 2011, such as a big lecture at DWF in San Antonio, something fun I’m throwing together for WPPI in Las Vegas, and finally having time to do some personal work that I storyboarded way back in June.

Have a great rest of the year!


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Double Rainbow, all the way

Double Rainbow, all the way

Wendy and I were in Boca Raton for a wedding, and, given how freezing it is in NYC these days, we wanted to take as much advantage of it as possible. So we went for a long, long walk along the beach, watching the sandpipers run along the waves, making up stories about the owners of the other footprints in the sand. It had been raining all morning, but that didn’t stop us. As we finally reached the point where we realized how far we’d walked, and that we’d have to walk all the way back, it started to rain a bit more, even though the sun was out.

“Look!” Wendy said. A rainbow seemingly began to grow out of the ocean. “I’ve never seen one right on the horizon before!” (We are not oceanfaring people).

It grew fast enough that you could follow its progress with your eye, first one band, and then a second. while behind us was a fantastic sunset.

You’d better believe we started shouting “What does this MEAN?”

And that’s why you always bring your camera with you. Regular ol’ panorama, 13 frames with the Nikon 35mm f/1.4.


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Photos that Matter

Something that deeply informs the way I shoot weddings is to always think about the kinds of photos that really matter to me. I know what kinds of photos I love to take as a photographer, and what sorts of photos I like to look at when the frames are filled with strangers, but it can be a very different thing when it’s me in the photo, or my friends and family. When I’m shooting the sorts of photos I like to look at as a photographer, I’m trying to be clever, to see angles other people might not see, to do things that I and other people haven’t done a thousand times before. But as a normal person with my own feelings and connections and history, the photos I hold most dear, the ones that I would cry and scream over if I ever lost, aren’t very tricky at all. And I know I’m not alone, since I’ve asked this of many other photographers — exactly the sorts of people who would be into deeply artistic shots — and I hear the same thing.

My Aunt Lita took one of my favorite photos of the past couple years as my mother surprised me with birthday cake after Thanksgiving dinner:

Not the most flattering angle of me, and I was unshaven, full of turkey, etc., and of course taken with a point-and-shoot. But I love everything about it, because of how real the moment was to me. I didn’t even know the photo was being taken, or care. My family is very musical, while I am sort of a Bizarro anti-musician who destroys every note I come near. But they love me, so when my cousin and uncle started banging out the last few songs of the Beatles “Abbey Road” on the piano, no one ran off screaming as I joined in. It was fantastic. I don’t get to see my family very much because I live away and work such grueling and strange hours, and here was a moment of intense connection and joy. And then, right after the last bars of “Hery Majesty,” my cousin Jay seamlessly transitioned into Happy Birthday.

And I started singing it. For my uncle Jim, whose birthday was later that week. Quite honestly, I’ve been so busy that I kept forgetting that my birthday was coming up. But when my mother brought out German chocolate cake (my late father’s favorite and thus, of course, my favorite too), I realized that it was all planned for me. And I was overwhelmed. And FLASH went the camera.

Thank you Mom, and my family. And thank you, Aunt Lita, for being there, for the memory, and for another reminder why I do what I do.


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How I Spent My Weekend Vacation

Being a wedding photographer is a wonderful, amazing life, and I couldn’t ask for anything more. But it’s also not for the faint of heart — in the long run this profession requires endurance perhaps even more than talent. I had to look back at the calendar to realize that my last weekend off was March 13th and 14th. And, looking at my computer’s records, I spent a good part of that weekend doing my taxes.

But there is something harder than being a wedding photographer, and that’s being a wedding photographer’s significant other. They don’t get to temper the off-kilter work schedule with all of the incredible joys of sharing wedding days with amazing couples, or the honor of documenting so many amazing experiences. Poor Wendy did not need to look at her calendar to know that March was the last time we had spent a few consecutive days together. Does she sound patient and long-suffering? Well consider this — we started dating seriously in February. The woman is a saint.

So I blocked off this past weekend to bookings, and we headed up to the Hudson Valley to see the fall foliage and relax for a bit (even so, I processed an engagement shoot and ,ost of an amazing wedding you’ll see shortly). And it was incredible. First we stayed at the Mohonk Mountain House, an amazing resort that I knew from a wedding I shot there years ago. Absolutely gorgeous. We scrambled up a tricky mountain path called The Labyrinth to see a wide valley full of fiery foliage — and we liked it so much that we put the camera down and did it again for speed.

Next we stayed at the Cromwell Manor Inn, a charming bed and breakfast with an innkeeper filled with stories ranging from quaint to bawdy, and incredible, extravagant breakfasts. Certainly the first time I’ve had Basque cuisine at a B&B. With a hay ride, a trip to the Storm King Art Center, a few gallons of apple cider, and massages for the both of us, I’m renewed and ready to finish the season.

And I took some pictures.

This is really what our view from our window at Mohonk looked like. I felt like “Double Rainbow” guy.
Wendy indulges me as I do an 18-image “Brenizer method”
But she’s happy anyway.
“Regular-style” panorama
I did a 12-image Brenizer method of this to see if my software could handle it. It did much better than I expected.
Dancer+hay bale=instant fun.
We’re a power couple.


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The Best Sunset I’ve Ever Seen

I remember my father’s hands, mostly. Huge and and always warm; they dwarfed mine even though I was a tall, lanky eight-year-old. And a voice that sounded deep and resonant even compared to mine now, much less my excited boyish squeaking as we sat in a parking lot and watched the sunset.

“This is a 774!” I cried!

“I’m not sure sure about that, Ryan,” he said, pointing upward. “Look at the way the sun is catching those clouds. I think this is at least an 824.”

We had decided that there were exactly 1,000 sunsets, and that God and his angels put them on display for us, numerically ranking them according to how majestic they were, and it was our duty to catalog them. We did a pretty good job. I was fastidious about not ranking one sunset higher than another one I’d seen that had been even better. Beauty, I learned early, is contextualized.

It was cocktail hour at Lauren and John’s Battery Gardens wedding when the skies set themselves on fire. It started as a golden streak mixed with the rich blue, and grew more and more colorful and complicated by the minute. There seemed to be eight different types of cloud, all catching the sun in different ways.

I stopped, just to watch. Unless you’ve seen me in action at a wedding, you might not understand how shocking that is. I don’t stop at weddings. I’ve received devastating personal news at weddings and not stopped working, bobbing and weaving and looking for new angles. Later that night, my assistant literally had to chase me around the entire reception floor to give me back some memory cards he was backing up, because I was circling so fast.

I know that sunsets are pretty much the lowest-regarded form of art. I didn’t have anything to do with how nice it looked, after all — I just had a decent sense of composition and know how to get the right exposure. But more importantly it’s because my normal job is to take photos that look much better than reality does, but there was nothing I could do here to even match what I was seeing. After all, who knows how you’re viewing this? You could be cramming this slice of a sunset into your mobile phone screen. We had it spread out across the sky for us, morphing into different beauties over half an hour.

But if I can’t even allude to the best sunset I’ve ever seen, if I can’t share some pretty pictures because they’re disdained as fine art, then I have forgotten the joy of taking pictures in the first place. Or worse, I have forgotten the joy of seeing.

But my father made sure I never would.

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Photo of the Day: Every Photo Has a Story…

Every Photo Has a Story…

… and this one doubly so.

I met Heather and Jordan for a very late-night engagement shoot at the swanky hotel where they got engaged. Unfortunately the floor they got engaged on was under construction, but I said “Hey, these elevators are pretty cool.” I usually try not to inconvenience anyone, but since the hotel was quiet at this time of night and there were two other elevators sitting unused, I hit all the buttons on the way down so we’d have time to set up a shot.

To get the ceiling lights and to not be in the reflection, I was crouched low to the right of the door, impossible to see until you came in. So we stopped at one of the floors and a guy walks in. “Woah, paparazzi!” he says. This is a pretty common joke people make when they see my giant camera, so I don’t think much of it. Then I look up at the guy to apologize.

It’s Dave Chappelle. And he thought I realliy was there for him. So he got doubly confused when I just kind of shrugged, apologized for hitting all the buttons, and went back to shooting Heather and Jordan.

“Man, I don’t need this…” he said, and got off at the next floor. He wasn’t really mad, but I think anyone would say that when they see two people making out on an elevator with a photographer and all of the buttons lit up.

Sorry, Dave.

P.S.: Dave has been working out. The guy was RIPPED.


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Unsung Heroes of Wedding Photography: Fred Rogers

If you want to know anything about why wedding photography is important, a good place to start is this guy:

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Yes, Mr. Rogers. As I go forward in this industry, as, after 120 weddings or so, I can no longer see myself as a fresh young upstart, I’ve been thinking a lot about the focus of my photography, the meaning, the whys more than the hows — and it’s hard to think of a better role model than Fred McFeely Rogers.

Now, people familiar with my MacGuyver obsession may say that I was overly influenced by the television I grew up with, and you’re probably right, but hear me out. Fred Rogers was about as close as 20th Century America has to a living saint. He was one of the most famous people on the planet, but as far from a “rock star” as you could ever imagine. He lived simply, and he never lost sight of what his work was really about — primarily the education of children, but also imparting the central message that we are unique, and that our uniqueness is wonderful. And nothing got in his way — with kindness and determination, he saved public television and he saved the VCR, because they helped him do his work. If you have never seen the video of him testifying before Congress, watch it. It’s amazing — his earnestness and intelligence utterly melts away the cynicism of career politicians for one of the few times in recorded history.

He was the antithesis of cool. He was skinny and nerdy and drove an old car, and he wore the same sweater all the time. But cool didn’t matter — he had a job to do, and it was important. Watch his acceptance of a Lifetime Achievement Emmy. Watch him stand before a lot of cool people and remind them that there is something so important.

We are in the middle of a deeply weird change — wedding photography, the red-headed stepchild of artistic photography, is becoming cool. People want to do it, people look at you approvingly when you tell them that you do it for a living, heck, you aren’t even publicly shamed quite so much at art schools if you dabble in it. This is awesome, and amazing, and has opened up so many new possibilities for photography in the industry. But I always try to remind myself that what we do is more than cool. By documenting the one of the most important days in someone’s life, we are writing social history for our clients, for their friends, for their families.

I spend a lot of time at most weddings just looking for perfect expressions. These photos are rarely cool and virtually unpublishable — they don’t tell much of a story, they don’t help future brides plan their wedding, and they don’t really help other photographers learn how to take good pictures. But when a couple comes up to me and says “This is the first picture of my mother I’ve ever seen that actually looks like her!” I feel like just maybe I’ve done something important.

People let us in. At weddings, between the joy and the anxiety and sometimes the alcohol, the walls that we walk around with come crashing down. In many ways, people are most themselves. We have the opportunity to document their uniqueness, the way they express joy, and that is something I want to stay focused on. Beyond the cool portraits, the Brenizer methods and flash composites and jaw-droppingly expensive equipment, sometimes I take photos of people that look like who they are, and I love them.

As he said in his acceptance speech: “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. … Think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life.” In other words, the people who we invite to share our wedding days. That is exactly the thing we have the power to document.

There’s no one way to do things. As I said, being super-cool has opened up so many new possibilities, allowing all sorts of couples to get photos that represent their style of expression. Be the Fonz of wedding photography, the Jack Kerouac, the Robert Capa, the Annie Liebowitz. I want to try to be more like the Fred Rogers.

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Touché, Time Warner

If anyone out there was placing an over/under on what it would take to get me to break my stream of daily content, here is your answer: Time-Warner Cable. Having no Internet in the office makes it awfully hard to run a business over the Internet.

On the plus side, when I return, I’ll be returning with a gorgeous Indian wedding. And as always previews from recent shoots are featured at my Facebook page, including a fun engagement shoot in Park Slope from Friday.

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It Pays to be Creepy, Part II

I’ve already discussed how my job makes me feel creepy because it’s good to take interest in the way romance plays out in the real world. But there’s more. I have always had a strange sort of photographic memory (pun not intended). If I’ve taken your photo, ever, I remember your face. I remember that I’ve taken a photo looks. I remember what that photo looked like and the expression you were making. But I often will have no recollection of the context, when or where the event was taken. The problem comes from what happens when you’ve taken photos of literally tens of thousands of people — for years I couldn’t walk around the Columbia University area without constant bouts of deja vu as people walked by me.

And, of course, the creepiness. I was in a coffeeshop waiting for the couple for today’s engagement shoot, and I sat next to a young woman. My brow furrowed. Do I say it?

“There’s really no way for this not to sound terrible, but I’ve taken your picture somewhere. Did you go to Columbia?”

No, it turned out, but she was in Rebekah and Jonah’s Korean/Jewish extravaganza.

So how does it pay to be creepy, other than remembering a great day (that has an album coming up soon)? This sort of memory has always been a huge advantage for me as an event photographer. I like to try to get photos of as many guests as possible, and even in gigantic events I can always remember at a glance which guests I’ve gotten good photos of and which I haven’t, giving clients as robust coverage as possible. So I guess I’ll have to live with the deja vu.

It also says something interesting about the profound cognitive effect the process of taking photos and reviewing them can have, at least for me, since I do not have a particularly good memory for your face if I haven’t taken your photo.


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Photo of the Day: Sunset Lounging

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Here’s another shot from the Rockhouse Hotel in Jamaica. What’s special about this shot? It was taken with my iPhone and minimally edited in Photoshop. Not a bad little camera on the 3Gs if you get the most you can out of it. More on this soon.


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(Story) of the Day: Moments, My Dad, and Me

An interesting thing happened the other day. I was on a forum where wedding photographers were talking about their favorite images from their own weddings. The vast majority of these were cute, quirky moments that captured the personality of beloved friends and families, not the amazing portraiture that we photographers tend to focus so much energy on. Now, I LOVE portraiture. I love bringing out the best in people, and I love showing people that yes, they CAN be photogenic. But my heart truly lies in the capture of moments. There are few greater compliments I can receive than one like these, from a recent couple: “This picture you took of my Mom laughing is the first picture I’ve ever seen that actually looks like her!”

Why is that? Part of it’s that I have a naturally quirky sense of humor, perhaps. Part of it is that I started out as a photojournalist. But the largest part, I think, is that I never for a second have to question the value of these types of photographs, because they are the ones that keep memories of my own father sharp and vibrant.

My sister just launched the Robert Brenizer Memorial, which is a brilliant way to use new technology to keep his memory alive. Dad would have loved it: I can’t count the times over the years that I have been thankful that he was a giant geek when it came to the latest and greatest gadgets. That meant that, although he died in 1987, we had not just countless hundreds of photos of him from the cameras he collected or encouraged my mother to buy, but hours and hours of VHS video of him from 1983 on, because he HAD to be the first one in town to get a VHS recorder, even though you literally had to carry the VCR around with you as you recorded on an incredibly cumbersome set-up.

Thanks, Dad.

I know I’m biased, but he truly was an extraordinary man, and is my constant role model for how to live a decent life. Consider this: In 3rd grade, I moved to a new school district after he, at age 46, had finished a military and business career and decided to be a high school physics teacher. When he heard that I was being picked on for being the new kid, he planned and got approval an assembly on the basics of physics that would make me look cool. Just think about that — not only did a guy who had been in a school district for a couple months get approval to launch his own school-wide assembly, his plan was to teach physics to 3rd-5th graders in ways that would make them think it was really exciting and cool, and it worked. He got his entire high school class to come in and act out different roles and skits, showing that they were also excited about physics, at least when it was in his hands.

He was brilliant. He was the kind of person who could read a series of books on home repair, and then help build a house from scratch. I can’t even pitch a proper tent. The angriest I ever saw him was the day of the Challenger explosion. I was home from school, and we were watching it together when it exploded. He had been nervous all morning because of the cold weather in Cape Canaveral, and as soon as the fact of the explosion sunk in he was yelling “It was TOO COLD! How could they do that?!?” Things that came to light only hours and days later — frozen o-rings, jargon the general public had never heard, were things that he guessed immediately. With years of experience as an Air Force instructor, he knew all about launch factors.

But the most shocking thing about that day, given how important it was, is how fuzzy my memory is of it. Was I home from school sick? I can’t remember. What were his exact words? I can’t remember. I remember the couch, and the TV, and how the importance of it all sunk in from his emotions, but after so many years I have nothing but vague impressions. Without photography and video, that’s all I’d be left with. And without photography that captured the way he acted, the way he moved through the world and cared for people, all I’d remember is what he looked like when he was looking at a camera, not who he was.

Thanks, sis, for the memorial site. It’s perfect.


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There Are No Rockstar Photographers

One of the attendees of my workshop told me this little anecdote that I absolutely loved. A friend of his is a teacher at a high school, and asked her students one simple question: “Can you name any photographer, living or dead?”

Silence. One student picked out a business card someone had given him and read the name off it.

If that doesn’t sink in, let me put it another way: In American culture, “The Situation” from Jersey Shore is way more famous than any photographer in history. Let that sink in for a bit.

At best, this entire industry has one rock star (Annie Liebowitz). Also, one classic pop diva ignored by the hip young masses (Anne Geddes). And I’ll give you Ryan McGinley as an indie hit.

There are a lot of things to take away from this — yes, you can bemoan a lack of education in the arts. But I LOVE it. Photographers aren’t important — their work is. Honestly, I couldn’t pick Richard Avedon, Alfred Stiglitz, or even modern masters like Steve McCurry out of a line-up — but I know their work inside and out. The Internet makes everything personal, turns everything into self-publishing, making the individual more important. It opens new opportunities, but it can get things twisted around.

Why does this get under my skin? It’s not a matter of individual behavior — most really well-known wedding photographers are the nicest people you could hope to meet. And, as the ad above shows, lots of industries have “rock stars.”

It’s all about what people aspire to. Is what really drives you to become more and more famous, or to do better and better work? Maybe fame is simply supplanting money as a form of currency — there have always been people out simply to get rich — but the central problem is that I believe that what wedding photographers do is more important than what many rock stars or celebrities do.

We aren’t important, but our work is. Love what you do and do it well, and you will spend a lifetime crafting the memories and social histories of people on the most important days of their lives. You will take photos that make children gape in amazement that their parents were so beautiful, you will take photos that will be laid with people in their caskets, you will take photos that can make people cry even if they don’t know the people in them.

Is that really less important than being the drummer for Nickelback?

UPDATE: Mark leaves a fantastic story in the comments: “I teach a HS class in photography. When I asked my kids to name one photographer they all said Ashton Kutcher. Then they saw a grown man cry!”


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