The Sun-Times laid off John H. White, and the rest of the photojournalists

Part of a Documentary project of mine

Part of a Documentary project of mine

The Chicago Sun-Times just announced that they are laying off the entire photography staff of the paper.  One of those photojournalists is John H. White; a Pulitzer prize winner.  As a businessman, I won’t speculate on the hard decisions that a company has to make in order to control costs.
But I do have to question the wisdom of anyone who lays off John H. White.

Along with hundreds of other photojournalists, I knew him as my teacher.

Back when I was getting my Bachelor Of Arts degree at Columbia College, photojournalism  was a required course for my major.  I signed up for it “knowing” that I was going to hate it.  After all, photojournalism was for shooters who had “no finesse,” “no technique,” and “who took tons of images hoping that they would get a good picture.”

In my arrogance and ignorance, that’s what I thought.  So as I sat down with other photographers at Columbia, I received my first hint of what was to come. I asked the 4th year students what they thought about my future instructor, John H. White.

They started to smile.  And laugh.
“Bring your camera”
“Yeah.  Bring your camera to class”
“Is he that bad?” I asked.
“No,” they responded.  “He’s that good.”

And that was all that they would tell me.  Over the next semester, I found out just how amazing he was. He not only convinced me that Photojournalism is art, but he made me understand what being a teacher and a leader is all about.   With that in mind, I’d like to share three of my favorite experiences with John H. White.

It was towards the end of the semester.  I was late to class, but it didn’t matter.  John H. White often came straight from work where he was held up because of an assignment.  We never complained, because John always stayed late. It wasn’t unusual for class to end an hour late. Students rarely left early.  Why would you?  You were getting the wisdom of a Pulitzer prize winning photographer.
John always greeted his students one-by-one to check-in with us.  “How are you doing, Mr. Abbott?” he asked me.
I could only shake my head in reply.
I was miserable. In truth, I was over-reacting. It was a woman. We dated a couple of times.  Things were going great, and then she didn’t want to see me again. That wasn’t the tough part. She wouldn’t tell me why, and it was playing havoc on every insecurity I had.
I normally wasn’t this somber, and John took note.  “Is it anything that you want to talk about?”
I looked around at the rest of the class.  No, I didn’t want to discuss my insecurities in front of the rest of the class.  “Not now…” I answered truthfully.
“After class?”
I gladly accepted and waited the 4 hours or so for the class to end. Students were still milling around when John waved me over. Again, he asked me what was wrong.  I asked him if we could wait until everyone had left.  He nodded, and then suggested that maybe we could go out for a quick drink.
He walked me across the street to a restaurant and we sat down.  He told me to order some food, on him.  Then he mentioned that he had to make a phone call. Since this was before cell phones were common, that meant he had to leave the table to find a phone.  He came back and we talked for over an hour.
It didn’t strike me until way, way later.  I don’t remember how I pieced it together.  But John’s phone call had been to tell an important person in his life that he would be late.  That he was helping a student with a problem.
There are teachers that you remember for their brilliance, and teachers that you remember for their caring.  Then there’s John H. White… who has shared both with me.


Bill Clinton, Super Tuesday, 1992.

My second story involves another person, so I’m calling her Jenna.
She was a huge fan of John H. White, as one of his students.  Towards the end of the semester, disaster struck. She had left a box full of her negative and prints on a bus. It was literally everything that she had worked on that semester. In the final days, she had to shoot as much as she could, and Jenna managed to quickly make 3 prints from those negatives. She was supposed to have 20 of them. Because she was in such a rush, the 3 prints were poorly printed.
With her heart in her stomach she bought them to class.
During finals, John H. White has his students lay their matted prints on the ground in rows. The class walks around them – as a group – for several minutes. After everyone has had a chance to see them, John starts to critique them. He begins with the problems of the images, and then he tells the student what he likes.
Jenna waited last. You could tell from the look on her face that she wanted to disappear. The man that she strongly admired was about to see some of the worst prints that she had ever produced… and there were only 3 of them. And this was her final.
John knew she was last, and said something to the effect of “let’s see your prints.”
She sheepishly put them on the ground.
There wasn’t a lot to see. We all gathered around, and within a minute, everyone had a chance to look at all 3 of them.  Heck… my stomach was in my throat. With one strong word from John, Jenna might crumble into a ball and start crying.
But what John did next will always stick with me.
He started out by explaining to the class that she had lost her negatives, and that this was a couple of days of work that we were looking at.  He looked at her, and said, “We’re not even going to talk about the print quality.  Because you know how I feel about that…”
And then he started talking about what she did better then anyone else in the class: How Jenna captured faces.  How she managed to capture expressions and emotions.
You could see it in those 3 images.  It was true. But John went beyond that. He then described other images that she had taken, ones that she had since lost.
In the time that he talked about her images, he lifted Jenna’s soul. He made her feel whole again. He let her know that he’d been paying attention, all semester, to what she did well. While I don’t remember Jenna leaving the final laughing, he managed to prevent her from having a meltdown.  Which was huge.

John's motto is Keep In Flight

John’s motto is Keep In Flight

My final story takes place a long time after I was in his class.
John had sent out a notice to all of his students that he wouldn’t be in touch for a while.  He was going on a trip to South Africa with Jesse Jackson.  The next thing that I know, I’m watching television as Jesse is speaking from the doorway of Nelson Mandela’s house.  Nelson had just been released from prison.  As Jesse introduces Nelson to the press, he says something about “and this is the press from Chicago.”
Jesse reaches towards his friend, John H. White. I hear a number of shutters in a row, and I know that its John shooting a picture at that moment, as Jesse escorts him into Nelson’s home.
John once told the class that being a photographer is having a front seat to history.  I can’t even fathom what he was feeling that day. But in that split moment where his friend was inviting him into Nelson Mandela’s home, his very first instinct was to get the picture… before going inside.  Its also worth also noting that once he was inside, he respected the privacy of the man who had just been released from prison… and largely kept his camera to himself.

The image that I have of the seagull, above, is recognizable to anyone who has taken John’s class. John regularly takes photos at sunrise, near the lake. When he sees a seagull, he tries to catch it with its wingtips up. His motto is “Keep In Flight,” and he often signs a note by adding the shape of the wings, as above.
Whenever I see a seagull, I do the same thing.
You may notice that the image has my watermark.  My complete name is John Henry Abbott.  Up until meeting John H. White, I had kept my middle name mostly to myself.
However, my pride in having met the man and having been taught by him is so extreme, that I even find pride that we have the same first name and middle initial.

You’ll note that I’ve included a couple of pictures here that seem unrelated.
They are not.
I wouldn’t have taken either of them if it wasn’t for John H. White.
I wouldn’t have dared taken on a documentary project on my own volition.
I wouldn’t have captured Bill Clinton on the day that he clinched the Democratic nomination for president.
I wouldn’t be the improv photographer that I am, and I certainly wouldn’t be the teacher that I am. I wouldn’t have been an extra on the set of the television show “Boss,” as a  photojournalist.  (The wardrobe person wouldn’t have looked at me, approved of the way I looked, and said, “Yeah… you’re a photojournalist.”)
I know that John H. White will continue to shoot, and that someone will hire him to take photos of events.  You’d be stupid not to.  I know that I’ll be at an event, and I’ll run into him again.  (I keep on doing that.  He’ll see me and wink.)  Most importantly, I know that he’ll continue to teach and inspire.
Because that’s what he does.
To Mr. John H. White; I just wanted you to know, I’m still “keeping in flight.”

Me, as an extra, in the second season of Boss

Me, as an extra, in the second season of Boss

Show me the worst picture you’ve used as a headshot, and Win one!



Yes; I actually used this pic as a headshot a long time ago.

It happens every time.
I’m an auditor at an audition.  As people hand in their resumes and headshots, I try not to look.  Because I know that someone is going to turn in a photo that was taken from their cell phone and printed on normal paper from their desktop printer. Or they’ll turn in a photo that was taken like… a decade ago.  Or a picture that their friend who’s learning photography has taken.  Quite naturally – as a photographer – I cringe.

Usually, one of the other auditors will say something. But I keep my mouth shut, because there is literally nothing I can do about it.

At least until now.

This is a contest. Its one where we get to all have a little bit of fun, and confess the worst shot that we’ve used as a headshot.  You e-mail me the image, and I’ll post it to a gallery like the one, below, and send you a link to it.  I’ll add other images to the gallery as I get them until the end of June.

Anyone can vote for the worst of the worst.  The person with the most votes for the “worst” image on July 1st gets a free headshot package from me.  Its that simple.
I feel like I’m setting the standard with the image, above.  I took that picture while I was attending college, as a self-portrait.  Years later, I needed a headshot.  I pulled that out of storage.  Beat that.

Now I know what you’re thinking:  what if someone cheats?  I am adding some safeguards.  I won’t tell you what they are.  I will say this, however; don’t take this too seriously, and please don’t cheat!  I have no problem with you lobbying your friends to vote for you.  But don’t hire your hacker-friend to do something nasty to my website… please!  This is just for fun!

One last caveat;  if you hire me to take your headshot before the contest ends, and you “win”, I’ll refund the cost of your headshot.  Yep… I’d do that.

So go dig in your filing cabinet and/or cell phone and find a copy of that picture that you used. It should be in digital form.  (If you need me to scan it… I can do that too.)

Just e-mail me your worst headshot, with a short description…

…And Win A Headshot.

*This only applies to people in the Chicago area.  I’m not traveling to Canada to fulfill this contest.  The value of a headshot package is $250.   But to someone who’s about to get a phone call from a casting agent?  Its priceless.

7 things you should know before getting your headshot


I like this image of Colleen because it makes you want to meet her; its outgoing and friendly.

1) This is about marketing you.

Sorry, but its true. If you are an actor, you are now a product that you’re trying to sell to directors, casting agents, producers, and hopefully… network executives. The very first exposure that they have of you, is in your headshot. In most cases, they go through a stack of headshots before deciding which performers they want to see in person.

Its awful. Right?

Get comfortable with the idea of selling yourself. Not on a corner, but in a headshot. Its legit.

With this in mind, make your headshot work for the roles that you are most suited for. If you tend to audition for parts that call for a tough guy, don’t send them a headshot that makes you look sweet and innocent. You won’t even make it past the first cut of 8 x 10s. Similiarly, if you are a big guy, 220 lbs of raw muscle, you probably don’t want to market yourself towards Best Buy commercials.

Know who you are, what you look like, and what you’re auditioning for. It just improves your odds. Which leads me to…

2) Know your type.

What is your type? Are you suburban housewife, or vixen? Are you senior accountant or blue-collar? I’m not talking about what you do in ‘real life’, but what you look like on first glance. If you’re not familiar with your type, ask a few of your actor friends:
“What commercial would you put me in?”
You’ll get an immediate break down of your type. Don’t freak out. A friend of mine was told that she looked like she could do birth control commercials. The person who told her that could have also told her that she looked like a modern, all American, approachable woman. That’s her look. What her look means is that she can sell products to other women. The implicit message is that she’s trustworthy.
If you know your type, then you can tell your photographer what type of images you want.

Look at the two images of Aaron, below. We purposefully shot him two different ways… one for commercials, and the other for theater. What do you think he looks like in each shot? What is the meta message – the implied subtext – of who he is?

Aaron blue Aaron, red

Two versions of Aaron. Would you cast the guy on the left for the same part as the guy on the right?

I hope you get the point.

3) Its about being comfortable

The one thing that photographers love to hear from their clients is “I felt very comfortable shooting with you.”

That’s huge! HUGE!!

I recently shot a number of executives for a real estate company. One agent after another stopped to tell me that they were comfortable with me. I was walking on air for days after that shoot.
Another client wanted boudoir photos. When they sent me a note, afterwards, with the same compliment? I couldn’t have been happier.

If you’re comfortable with us, then the actual shooting part is easy. Then all we have to do is use all of that technical stuff that resides in the back of our heads to bring you into the best light. While that part is a lot of skill, what makes taking a headshot so different is that the actor has to be completely comfortable. We literally have to figure out ways to make you okay with us, so that you can be yourself.

Conversely, I hear horror stories from clients about their “previous” photographer. I think you know where this is going? “I just didn’t feel comfortable with him/ her.” Its no surprise that their previous shoot was a disaster, and that it showed up in the images.

Please, meet with your photographer ahead of time. If it doesn’t feel right, keep searching. You’re spending a lot of money on this.

4) You need clothes that fit

For some reason, a lot of thin people have clothes that are much larger then they are. They bring them to a shoot, and we have to use clamps on the loose fabric so that it doesn’t look so awkward.

Clothes that fit make a huge difference. I’m sure you’ve seen a photo of someone, and all you can think of is: what were they thinking when they chose that outfit? If you’ve gained/lost weight recently, check in with your photographer and then go out and buy something that conforms to your body.

5) Don’t get your hair cut the day before a shoot

You’d be amazed at how many people do this. -And then they get to the shoot, and they don’t know why they can’t get their hair to lay down. Most stylists suggest giving your hair a week between the time that you get it cut, and when you get your photo taken. Your hair tends to find its new natural resting spot during the week.

6) Get photographed during your “peak” time

Are you a morning person? No? Then why are we setting up your shoot in the morning?

Yeah, I get it. You’re an actor. You can “pretend” like you’re okay with it. But let’s not pretend like you’d rather be doing this when you’re more awake.

I had a friend who had agreed to pose for me. She was out the previous night. She arrived looking like she might have had 3 hours of sleep. Like I said, she’s a friend who had volunteered for the shoot. So I took a couple of frames, and then sent her back home.

If you’re a morning person, shoot in the morning. Night person? Set up a later shoot.

7) You should be hiring me

So you’ve been reading this – and it all makes sense to you – but you haven’t been given this advice before. Not from your agent, acting teacher, or your previous photographer?

This is why you should be hiring me.

Its what I do. I shoot people for a living, and they pay me to do it.

Photographing Improv

Baby Wants Candy

Baby Wants Candy, destroying the stage in CIF 2000. This image somehow made the Lifestyle section of the SunTimes the following year, heralding the coming of the improv festival.

I was practically new to improv back in 2000, when I heard about something called the Chicago Improv Festival.

Its hard to put into words how jazzed I was. I had just gotten into improv the previous year. Before that, I didn’t even know that improv had existed. I’d already immersed myself into the community as an intern, both at Second City and iO. I kept showing up at improv parties, where veteran improvisers were simultaneously bemused and refreshed that a guy who was taking level C at SC, and level 2 at iO, had accepted their invitation. I was the guy who kept asking his favorite improvisers to sign his copy of An Incomplete Education with their best advice on how to get better.

Now I found out that there was a festival? For improv???

Suddenly, I was Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka. I would do anything for a Golden ticket… and I wanted it now.

I found out that a guy named Jonathan Pitts was in charge of the festival I immediately contacted him and offered to photograph it in exchange for access. But the festival was really new, and what it needed more then anything else was face-to-face PR.

So on a cold day in April, I found myself handing out CIF postcards in front of iO, as a hard freezing rain slowly lowered my body temperature.

My story would have ended there, if it wasn’t for the fact that Jonathan suddenly found himself in need of a festival photographer. I gave him an idea of film costs, he approved, and gave me a short list of events that he needed to get photographed. In exchange, I was given an all-event pass.

..And I was off. I didn’t just photograph the festival. I absorbed it. I went to every workshop that I could watch… every performance that had an empty seat. This was combining my two passions, Improv and Photography. I was in Valhalla. (Not to be confused with the improv team, Valhalla.)

If you’re new to the improv community, you probably don’t know how radical of a thing it was to have an improv festival in 2000. So take yourself back in time a little bit. There is no Phoenix improv festival. No Toronto Festival, no Gainsville, Raleigh, Seattle, Orlando, St. Louis, or Alaska improv festival.

If you wanted to go to a week of performances and workshops? You had to come to Chicago. And people came.

Avery Shriver Workshop

The 2000 class, at an Avery Shriver workshop at Second City

I mean, they came by the hundreds from all over the US and beyond. Full improv troupes spent a week sleeping on a floor at a friend’s house to take a master class with Avery Shriver. -Or to find out what that JTS Brown was all about. They wanted to pay homage to iO, watch Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey perform, and, more then anything, learn something new about improv.

In the following years, the amount of students swelled, until every classroom in St. Alphonsas’ top floor had been rented as a rehearsal space for Saturday workshops. By 2002, I was running between various venues for a solid week, shooting every single type of event. The first year, I had shot film. The next year, we started using crude first generation digital cameras. Every year after that, the shooting became more sophisticated and I’d learn something new.

I hadn’t set out to become good at photographing improv. I wouldn’t even say it was on my radar.

But it is a skill that I picked up over time, and I became skilled at photographing improv. It didn’t hurt that I had watched over 5,000 shows at iO over the years, or that I understood the structure. If you know where a performance should go, you can occasionally anticipate a shot. But more importantly, you find out what makes an improv photograph great:


Threepeat, CIF 2013, at the Playground.

Reactions and moments.

Yes, its easy to find the zany moments where improvisers are tossing each other about. Or when someone creates a wacky face. (Yes, I just used the terms zany and wacky.) The best improv photos are about reactions and moments.

When I photograph an improv performance, I’m not just looking at the players. I’m looking at the people on the sidelines. I’m paying attention to the performers who look like they’re about to break, or who looks like they have the “button” to a scene. I’m still listening to the performance, but I don’t “shoot with my ears.”

Let me explain.

TJ & Dave

CIF 2002; “TJ and Friend”, on a Wednesday night. It later turned into a regular thing called TJ & Dave.

After every CIF, I spend days reviewing and editing my photos. In those first years, I wondered why I had taken so many images of two people standing and looking at each other. Look at that TJ and Dave photo, above. Obviously, I thought it was funny at the time. And it probably was… as long as you heard what they were saying. When photographing improv, you can’t “shoot with your ears.” You can’t take the picture because the scene is funny. Because a hilarious scene might just look like two guys standing across from each other.

Adsit & Lutz

Adsit and Lutz, CIF 2013, in a private performance for performers.

Similarly, you have to look for moments. You have no idea what’s going on in the scene above… but it piques your interest. They’re connected. Its a definitive moment.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are some images where the funny is apparent, and it doesn’t take any back story to just find the image funny…

Hugs and Pullups

Hugs and Pullups, CIF 2013, The Playground Theater

You just look at the image, and it makes you smile. You don’t need to know what was going on. In fact, its probably just as funny that you don’t know what’s going on.

If I were “shooting with my ears,” I would have waited for the button of the scene. Or I would have photographed at the funniest line, instead of just looking for that thing that makes you wonder: “What just happened?”

If you’re wondering what bought this all up, I just spent a good portion of a week editing down images from CIF 2013. I had a blast, as usual. I ran into a ton of old friends, and made a few new ones. CIF is consistently about the best things in the improv community to me. As an event, it’s success can be seen in Phoenix, Gainsville, Toronto, Raleigh, Seattle, Alaska, and all of the other festivals that it inspired.

On a personal level, it reminds me of what I want to be doing more of.

The very first image that I posted here is of Baby Wants Candy. You’ll note the Chicago Improv Festival sign behind it that I helped paint. While myself and a bunch of other interns were putting the set together, the people who were performing that night came to look at the stage.

I knew most of them. I looked up to all of them. There was an unspoken thing that us interns knew: these were the best improvisers in the world. -And though we were covered in paint and dust, they came up to us and shook our hands, thanking us for helping out with the festival. A few of them (Christina Gausas, Rachel Mason, Al Samuels, TJ, etc) recognized me from interning at iO, and called me by name.

Think about whatever you want to be the best at. Let’s say it was basketball, and you had a chance to photograph Michael Jordan when the Bulls were taking championship after championship. Now imagine that as you’re volunteering to put up the basket before the game when the players walk out. Michael Jordan and the rest of the players call you by name, shake your hand, and thanks you for your work.

That’s how I felt.

Since 2000, I’ve gotten a helluva lot better at photographing improv. I’ve become way, way, way better at performing, and was even given a chance to perform at CIF years ago. I’m currently coaching three improv teams and I teach independent workshops. But like a lot of performers, I forget what I’ve accomplished. Now don’t get me wrong. I am in no way comparing myself to the people in that first image. What I’m saying is that looking through all of the images, I’m reminded to listen when someone comes up after a show to tell me that they loved the show. To occasionally see things through their eyes, and remember what it was like when improv was magic to me. -And most importantly, to thank them for coming to see my show, for introducing themselves, or just for saying something kind.

I currently have about 65 Gigs of images from the Chicago Improv Festival and College Improv Tournament on my hard drive. Its a lot of memories, and a huge reminder to thank the people who remembered me by name.

A cautionary tale about putting your pictures online

I’m very protective of the people that I photograph.

So naturally, when someone texted me to let me know that someone had stole my image of them and put it on an anonymous sex website, I was pissed.

This is a shorter story, but it still needs a little bit of background. Early on in my photo career, I was creeped out by a lot of the stories that I heard about other photographers. I didn’t want to be one of those photographers. You know…the guy who publishes semi-nude photos of someone the moment that they become famous? I never want to be one of those guys.

Its why I rarely ask people for a photo release. If I’m representing someone else, I will ask for one. But otherwise, I want every use of a person’s photo to be with their full permission. I even try to make sure that I ask people before posting their image on my website. Its just good practice.

I also watermark the shit out of my images when I post them online. I know that my pictures aren’t as beautiful when they’re watermarked, and that it doesn’t stop someone from stealing them. But it does make it harder. I don’t need my image to be theft-proof. I just need to make it harder to steal than the image next to it.

My client had their image up on their own personal website. It wasn’t even that scandalous. They were in their underwear. But some asshole in China stole it and put it up on an anonymous sex website, representing themselves as my client.

The #1 way that people find me, through Google


Anthony and I wanted to keep his image simple and uncluttered

Anthony Oberbeck

My website package – like most packages – includes stats that let you know a lot about the people who visit your web page.

My favorite part of this has always been reading the “Key search phrases.” Its a list of phrases that people have used – in Google or other search engines – to find your webpage.

Yes, you’ll always find phrases like “john abbott photography chicago”, or “how much does it cost to have head shots taken?” on the list. And that’s expected. But what I love is finding out the other ways that people run across my website.

For instance, I have an image of Bill Clinton on one page, so fans of “Clinton” seem to find me. The same thing for “Susan Messing,” when people enter her name in a search engine.

Other key phrases just reflect direct sentences on my website. For instance, “a dancer’s quest for perfection” finds my page because on my page for dance photography, I write about how amazing it is to work with professional dancers.

But what’s really fun is to find the phrases that seem like the outlier phrases. For instance:
“hero John Abbott”
“unique sexy headshots for model shaving”

I don’t even know what the second phrase means… but as long as someone finds my web page, who am I to judge?

The most important part of that last phrase, though, was shaving. Because that’s how people keep finding my website. They type in:
“should i shave for my headshot”
“should i shave before an audition?”

And they find my FAQ on headshots, where I talk about shaving before a headshot. So as long as we’re on the topic, I want to expand on it.

Every guy with a beard doesn’t want to get typecast as the guy with the beard. I’ve started rethinking this recently, and I figure this is as good of a place to address it as any.

Yes, you can come here, get your pictures taken with a beard, shave, and then have them taken without a beard. Will your face look great? Most likely, not. Because as all men know, shaving off a full beard is a traumatic experience for your face. If you’re able to do it without harming your face? Good for you. You are in the minority.

To all of the rest of you? You should probably decide on a look that you want to market. Do you want to be the guy with the beard? Or do you want to be the clean shaven dude? Sure, in an ideal world, you can audition for anything. But if you saw an audition, would you shave off your beard before going in? If not, then you probably want to keep your beard for your headshot.
Unless you see yourself shaving before a good portion of your auditions, why would you want clean shaven headshots?
Decide on who you want to be, and who you want to market. Yes, Leonardo DeCaprio had a beard in his last part. He’s Leo. He gets to send in two sets of headshots to convince the director that he’s good to go for the part that needs a beard. You should probably decide on one pic, because you haven’t made millions in film. Yet.

Again, I have no problem shooting you both ways. But this is marketing. Decide on who you want to market: the guy with the beard, or the guy without the beard?

And if you want to cheat? Go ahead. Google “audition beard” and “audition clean shaven” and see which gets the most hits for your area, or for the type of audition that you want to do.

Or you can Google “listhn i dot like u stayin nite somwher”, and for reasons that I’ll never know, you’ll find my website.

Why I will always have a business card on me

Tiffany Lamp

Tiffany lamp, scanned from the catalog.

I was shooting for a catalog at an auction house.

As far as photography gigs go, this one was exceptionally cool. Every day was a learning opportunity. Picture photographing everything from a 17th century chest to a Tiffany lamp worth $25,000. That was a typical day.
The auction house would assign one of the specialists to work with me. One day, it was an account executive who knew a lot about paintings. Another day, an expert on Italian glass. They would tell me what to shoot, and then hang out as I photographed the item. Of course, I asked a lot of questions about what I was shooting. And I tried to absorb as much as I could.

Once I was photographing ceramic items, when I was handed two small black and white objects. “What are these,” I asked, joking, “Picassos?”
Yes, I was told. Those are by Picasso.

It was that kind of a job.

Another catalog was mostly paintings. We were hanging painting after painting on a nail on a post to be photographed. As I hung one, I asked about the background of the artist. This one had an interesting back story. It was painted by the brother of a familiar artist. The person who painted this image was better then his brother, and had taught his brother. But the brother became famous, while the guy who had created the image that I was looking at, had languished in his brother’s shadow.
However, all of that was starting to change. The teacher was finally getting credit for his work. I asked the executive how much they could expect this particular piece of art to get at auction, as I was trying to get it to catch onto the nail.

“Around $75,000,” he said.
I inhaled, and made sure that it wouldn’t come off.

I could tell that the auction house liked me, because I kept on getting invited back to shoot more items. I – in turn – loved working there. It combined my love of historic items with photography. Not a bad gig.

One day, as I was setting up a shot, one of the senior members of management came in. They had that look on their face. You know, the kind that says, “Pretty please?”
They asked if I could work late that night. “How late?” I asked.

It turned out that they wanted me to do a location shoot. They told me that it wasn’t that far away, but that they didn’t know how many items, exactly, I’d be shooting. It was in a client’s home. A well to do client’s home. A very well to do client’s home.

I agreed on 3 conditions. That they would provide the transportation, that they would feed me, and that they would make sure I had enough time to set up. They immediately agreed, and offered up a few of their employees to help me pack their van.

Now I was intrigued.

When I heard the address, my interest piqued even more: East on Lake Shore Drive. It took me a while to grasp that there was only one section of Chicago that they could be referring to. This was the golden part of the gold coast. I suddenly wished that I had dressed a little better than a t-shirt and jeans.

We get there, and drive up to the door. The doorman tells us that we can wait inside, that he’ll back up the van to the freight elevator. Inside, security immediately recognizes who we are. We unload a lot of equipment onto the elevator. I reach for the button to close the door… and discover there are no buttons. A voice fills the space: “Are you ready to go up?”

“Yes?” I say, in part answer, part question.

The elevator stops on the top floor. A stunning woman waits there. “Do you have anything that you can put your equipment on?”
“We have a very beautiful floor,” she begins to explain, “I was hoping that you’d have some blankets, or something, that you could put under your equipment?”
Oh no. She’s extremely anal. She seems nice enough, but already, I’m questioning why I stayed late. “I’ll be very careful?”
“Well… maybe I can find some towels or something. Would you use them, if I can give you something?”
I say the words, but I realize that this might be a very difficult shoot. I move my lights around all of the time. It would become a pain in the butt if I had to move a towel every time I did so.

We start to unload the elevator, and I take a walk to the room that she’s speaking about.

And she was completely right. That was one fantastic floor. And by floor, I mean, a work of art that you just happen to step upon.
She explains why its so beautiful. It turns out that it was made by students at the School Of the Art Institute. They had designed it out of various small shaped pieces of different types of wood. They created a large mosaic pattern that made up the floor. I couldn’t even guess how many hundreds (thousands?) of pieces they had laid down. When the floor was finished, they sanded it flat. And then the real work started. They coated it with a polyurethane, let it dry for 24 hours, and then sanded it. Then they repeated that process again. Day after day after day. For a month.

The floor looked like it had a piece of glass sitting on top of it. But it wasn’t glass. It was a thick, gorgeous, layer of clear… protecting the amazing wood that lay underneath.
Oh.. and that was just the floor.


A confidente; the main item I was sent to photograph, on said floor

The room itself was adorned with various pieces of antique furniture. Any one of them could have made it into the catalog. Particularly the grand piano.

I took a moment.

I literally walked around the room, and stood in every corner. For a while, I was just playing a photographer, standing in various places to figure out the best angle to photograph the room. I needed to reset my brain. I suddenly started to grasp just how well off this couple was.

-And then I went to work.
Photography, I could handle. As long as I focused on my job, I’d be okay. I wouldn’t be overwhelmed. I wouldn’t feel out of place.

The couple couldn’t have been nicer. The account executives from the auction house were tripping over each other to be their best friends. I started to hear about the couple themselves. They had bought the entire building a long time ago, and decided that they would live on the top floor. It was worth upwards of $6 million.
As I set up the room, they asked me if I wanted “anything to eat.” I paused. I’m not a foodie. If they bought out Foie gras, or anything unfamiliar.. I wouldn’t know what to do. I think I said “no.” The man of the house, being the nice guy he was, tried again. “Pizza?” he asked.
Yes. Now we were friends.

While waiting for the pizza, I finished the first shot. It was the Confidente in the image above. The image was a lot more complicated then it (hopefully) looks. There is a big softbox on the right side of the camera. Another softbox out of view on the far left side. A small light just to my left to light up the closest part of the Confidente. A light that is using a narrow grid to light up the side of the piano, far away. And in the corner, where you see a lamp lit up? that’s a special strobe that goes off when all of the other strobes go off.

I took a Polaroid to check the lighting. Everyone gathered around me to see what it looked like. The appraisers approved. The person who hired me approved. But most importantly, the man who owned the place loved my work. He gave me great compliments on my lighting, and how I picked “just the right angle” to capture everything in the room, while still putting the focus on the Confidente.

Pizza came. The appraisers sat around a table in a breakfast nook with the couple who owned the place. The couple asked me to come and join them, and I politely obliged.
Now keep in mind, I’m dressed in my usual t-shirt and jeans. I’m the least dressed person there, and feeling just a little out of place. All I wanted was to finish my food and get back to photography. But the couple were great hosts, and wanted to know more about me.

We talked briefly, and then I got back to work. It was only a few images, but I wanted to make sure that everything looked its best. After all, I didn’t want to have to tell the executives that I had to go back to take more photos. The entire time, the couple compliments me on my work, and the man keeps enumerating all of the things that he likes about my photos.

Did I mention that this man owned hotels? Yeah… I forgot to tell you that part.

So I finish taking pictures, and I break my equipment down as quick as possible. Its late, and I don’t want us to overstay our welcome. Everyone is thrilled with the pictures from the Polaroids that they’ve seen, and as I grab the one bag that I’m taking with me, the couple both shake my hand while delivering more compliments.
And then he asks me that question.
He’s owns hotels. He is very wealthy. And after telling me repeatedly about what a great photographer I am, he asks:
“Do you have a card?”

I did not have a card. If I could have, I would have run down to the nearest Kinkos while telling him that “its in my car” and that I’d be right back. But the truth was that I had run out of cards, and I needed to order some more.

“That’s okay,” he says. I can send him one.

My heart sank.

Now don’t get me wrong. I did send him one. But we all know that card was probably lost in transit between his secretary and him. And let’s face it… there’s nothing like handing a card to someone who has just delivered a major compliment to you on your work. Particularly a someone who owns hotels.

To this day, I don’t care where I am. I have a card on me. If I’m at a party, on a date, or just out with friends… I have a card on me. For a while, I even carried cards while I was running.

Because when a very wealthy man is showering you with compliments, and asks you for your card? You better fucking well have a card.
Or, trust me, you’ll feel like a dumbass for the next ten years or so.

Just today, I feel like a badass

Photography is a tough business. Like any artist, there are those days where I doubt that I have any talent.

But every once in a while, I feel like a badass despite myself. This is one of those days.


Allie. The goal was to make you notice her eyes first.

This is Allie.

When we talked about what she wanted in a headshot, it was very important to her to make sure her eyes connected in the photograph. (She told me that she liked that about my other photos.)

I really like this image. It fulfills everything that we talked about ahead of time, and it goes beyond that for me.

So just for today, I’m allowing myself to feel like a badass.

Why I was jazzed at the chance to shoot the Katydids

Every once in a while, someone will inquire about my services and I’ll leap at the chance to shoot them.

The Katydids

The Katydids, in a faux fashion shoot

These are The Katydids; a group of women who all have a variation of the name “Kate” who formed their own improv troupe.

In 2011, they contracted me to photograph them. I leapt at the chance for three reasons.

  1. They are extraordinarily talented women.
  2. They always seemed to come up with cool ideas for their photos
  3. They work hard at the business end of show business

Because of those three things, I knew that my image would be used. When you know that its going to be a fun shoot, with fun ideas, you already know that the picture is going to be great ahead of time. -And as I told them, I just wanted to be able to say that I had photographed them.

Because I knew that they would go on to do great things.

Now I know what you’re thinking. There are a lot of people out there who are funny, and who should be doing great things. How can I claim that I knew that The Katydids were going to go on to do great things?
Reason #3.

Talent isn’t enough. Great ideas are not enough. Neither of those things can replace the basic concept of working hard at the business end of show business.

The Katydids were constantly promoting their own shows. They updated their headshots, their promotional photos, their bios, and their webpage regularly. They created original content, hired the best people that they could afford, and networked. Each performer chipped in to help out with their expenses. They seemed to divide up the tasks and responsibilities among themselves.

They weren’t just waiting for people to notice them.
They took advantage of new media and kept writing.

…And yes, they were a complete blast to photograph. They didn’t take themselves too seriously. At the same time, they were prompt, professional, and prepared. They gave me their idea ahead of time and respected my creative input. They also made sure I knew what they wanted the final product to look like.

Right now, I know far too many creative people who can do #1 and #2, but can’t seem to do #3. #3 is the hard one. Yes, you can be talented and come up with great ideas, but until you actually tend to the business end… no one will help you out.

Yes, I’m proud to say that I shot them. Yeah, I can’t wait to see what else they do in the future. But its worth noting that they worked their butts off to get there. All the more power to them for pursuing what they love to do.

Record Companies and Old School Photographers – (People who don’t understand digital)

Marc Ortiz

Marc Ortiz, shot on film, before I started shooting digital.

It was close to 20 years ago that I was playing around with digital sound files on a computer.
I was using software to edit a wave file. I wanted to use my own sound files in a video game, and I needed to piece together several sound clips. It was surprisingly easy to not only edit the clips, but mix them together with no added noise.

As someone who had played with recording onto tape, this was a major revelation to me. It was now possible to record onto a lossless medium where no perceptible noise would be introduced. You had a digital mixing studio in your home. The implications for the recording industry were clear. Record companies no longer held a stranglehold on the medium. If anyone could record a song, then bands didn’t need to sign record contracts that forked over future profits in exchange for studio time. If the record companies didn’t adapt, they would soon be dinosaurs.

A few old school photographers are having a similarly hard time adapting to the digital age.

The old school way of doing business for a photographer was to charge the client a fee for the shoot. The photographer would also tack on additional fees for film and processing. Parking. Gas. Assistants. Makeup artists. Models. Etc.. Don’t get me wrong.. these were all legitimate expenses. But some photographers would purposefully jack them up. Then the photographer would give the client proofs. If the client wanted reproductions of any of the images, they had to pay an additional fee. In some cases, photographers would charge for each use of each image. If you wanted to get headshots done, some photographers would charge you every. Single. Time. That you had reproductions made of your original 8 x 10.

This was the accepted practice.


Alana, shot on film. This image also appeared in my ad in “The Book”

When I started shooting, I ended up taking a side job for a photographer. She had just shot an event. She was charging each person at the event – who wanted pictures – a couple of bucks for a 4 x 6 photo. More, if they wanted a larger one. Of course, she didn’t want to spend her entire day sorting through negatives, so she hired me. It was my job to match the person to the negative, fill out the photo processing form, and mark it so that she would know who the image would go to.
She didn’t know it, but she was the one who convinced me to never-ever-ever do business in that kind of a piecemeal way. I wasn’t interested in nickels and dimes. Or even a couple hundred dollars, if it took me that much time sorting through negatives. I wanted to take photos. I didn’t want to waste my time on paperwork.

As a film photographer, I charged people for my time, film, and processing. That was it. I was often lucky in the sense that the client often had the equipment. I would literally go to their facility, use their equipment, and charge them for my time. This, was awesome! I didn’t spend any of my time processing images or doing paperwork. That was their job.

And then digital came.

I was already charging clients a flat fee for headshots. But digital made it sooo much easier. Now I could give the clients all of their images. When a client asked me how many frames I took, I could give them a rough idea. But I didn’t have to limit myself to 72 shots, or two rolls, for the sake of the cost of film. Yes, there is extra wear and tear on my equipment. But its negligible when it comes to getting the image right. And that makes all of the difference to me.

Now why do I bring this up?

Not too long ago, I was contracted by a photographer to do a corporate shoot. I would be photographing a lot of high-profile employees… people who’s salaries were easily in the six figures. While speaking to the photographer, I was told that if they wanted more then 6 frames of each employee, they would have to pay extra for it.

I stood there, with my mouth agape.
I wasn’t a grade school photographer, shooting kids for 2 minutes. This was a corporate shoot. I was getting paid good money to be there and show the client in their best light. Because in this case, the client’s image is a good portion of their business.

And the Photographer wanted me to shoot 6 frames of each person?
I balked. I told the photographer that I shoot until I get the image. That’s it.

Much to the photographer’s credit, they let me do the shoot my way. I shot images until I knew that the client would be happy with the pictures. -And the client loved me. Go figure.

But this wasn’t the last problem I had with this photographer. After the shoot, the photographer didn’t want to give all of the images to directly to the client. (After bragging on their website that they get the images to the client on the same day.)

Why? Because the photographer was old school. They didn’t adapt. They haven’t figured out the impact of the digital age, and they haven’t realized that they are the record company executive telling the songwriter that they won’t get studio time unless they sign with them.

I am no longer a young man. But I’m proud to say that I’ve been ahead of the curve when it comes to the digital revolution. I was giving people CDs (now data DVDs, because of increased image size) of their images before most photographers figured out that it was a thing that they could do. My latest website is somewhere around its 4th revision. I coded it, every time, myself. I didn’t use a template.

I modified this blog software to fit my needs.

There are a lot of photographers who fear the digital revolution because it makes it a lot easier for anyone to take a great image of their friend. But I don’t fear it.

Painters were worried that photographers would make them extinct, but people still pay tens of thousands of dollars for works of art. The first generation of photographers were worried that the Brownie would put them out of business. It just made them raise their game. 35mm cameras threatened to put another generation of photographers out on the streets. Those photographers adapted.

Yes, you can now take an awesome shot with your iPhone. But here’s the catch: you don’t obsess on it like I do. Its not the camera. It never has been. The camera is a tool. Its the person behind it that notices the details.

And we have to adapt, just like everyone else. Otherwise, we’ll wonder why the musician doesn’t want to fork over half of their profits for 7 days of studio time.