BLOG - David Zapanta Photography

DAMNED IF I DON'T

December 15, 2018

In Steven Pressfield's The War of Art,  a motivational book for artists, he makes a salient point about what drives creative people to create: “We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.” Indeed, in its truest, purest sense, the creative impulse is a thing wholly apart from thoughts of potential financial success. At least, that's the case for me. Which may seem odd, given that this post is part of a photography website that includes BUY buttons and a shopping cart. I could easily argue that I believe in my work enough to ascribe an arbitrary value to every photograph. But in doing so--in assigning any kind of dollar amount to my work--it's hard for me to escape the feeling that any aspect of commerce compromises the very creative process itself. I do firmly believe art can and should exist for its own sake.

So then why does this website even exist? Why sell my photos if doing so flies in the face of pure artistic expression?

Well, for one thing, new camera lenses (especially prime lenses) won't pay for themselves. Nor will an upgraded camera body. My current camera is a Canon EOS Rebel, which I bought back in 2016. I love this camera, which was a considerable step up from using my phone for street photography. I've gotten a lot of use out of my Canon and its two kit lenses (18-55mm and 75-300mm) in the last couple of years. But I've had my eye on a couple of new lenses for a while now (50mm and 85mm). I can certainly afford them, but in my mind, I want money from selling my work to cover such costs. It's my way of keeping photography a self-sustaining endeavor. Maybe this is a bit short-sighted and naive on my part, this idea that art can sustain itself.

But consider this:

Earlier this year, I was incredibly fortunate to have two photographs selected for this year's annual issue of Kurt Vonnegut's literary journal So It Goes. Better yet, I was invited to present my work at VonnegutFest in Indianapolis. (I'm working on a  separate post in which I go into much deeper detail about this trip--my first to the Hoosier state.) As readers may already know, in addition to photography and writing novels and reviews, I also created a line of greeting cards called Melancholy Greetings. My entire trip to Indianapolis was funded by the greeting card business. All of it.

This isn't to say that I flew first class or stayed in a 5-star hotel, as both things are untrue. But all the same, I was able to make such a trip because there are people in the world who willingly exchange their hard-earned money for something (many, many somethings) I've created. You can't put a price on that sort of fulfillment.

That is, until you do.

Which brings us back to the very existence of this website, to the reluctant mingling of art and commerce. I realize I'm incredibly lucky that my photography is hanging on walls in homes I will never visit. My work represents me at my best, even if behind the scenes I question whether I'll still be taking photos a year or even a month from now. At times I believe I was born to have a camera in my hand, that photography is my true calling. I cannot deny that photography--not my writing, nor my drawing--sustains a deep and constant need for self-expression.

But then I question why I'm still doing this, if I can't fully devote myself to something that brings me such immediate and obvious joy. I'm damned if I do, damned if I don't. Maybe what I'm experiencing is a crisis of faith--in that I'm unable to take a necessary leap of faith--in myself, and in my work. My compulsion to take photos is strong, to the point that I sometimes dream that I'm taking the perfect shot.

One last thing:

Yes, this website exists to share my work, and to offer people the chance to buy it for themselves, if they so desire. But I've also been known to freely give away my work, be it photos or novels or greeting cards. It's not the best business model, generosity. Generosity may nourish one's soul, but, ultimately it won't feed one's family.

In The War of Art, Steve Pressfield posits an interesting question: “Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it?”

For me, art has never been about fame, or fortune. If anything, over the years I've repeatedly demonstrated a knack for breaking even. For all the hours and all the miles I've devoted to filling a camera roll with thousands of photos the world will never see (or purchase), my answer can only be an unequivocal yes.

Yes to the attendant doubts, yes to the many highs and lows, to the fleeting transcendence of capturing the perfect shot. Not just in my dreams, but with eyes wide open.

Yes.


SPOTTED

June 9, 2018

Hello, my name is David, and I am a commuter.

I generally arrive in the city a solid 90 minutes before the start of my workday. This is by design, of course. This extra time allows me to shoot before parking myself at a desk for the next several hours. Camera in hand before I even step outside of Grand Central Terminal, I ask myself a key question: East or west? 

I tend to favor Manhattan's west side, as aggressive gentrification has yet to overtake the kind of urban decay I tend to favor. Hell's Kitchen, Chelsea, the Meatpacking District--these neighborhoods still retain a tremendous amount of character. They're also walkable distances from 42nd Street.

As for the east side, well, Kip's Bay and Rose Hill have some interesting nooks and crannies, as does Gramercy Park. But these neighborhoods aren't quite as grungy as their west side counterparts. Things get interesting around Stuyvesant Town, but by then I'm outside the radius of what's walkable before the workday begins.

If I'm lucky--and fleet of foot--I might be able to hit the East Village or Alphabet City at lunchtime. Sometimes I make it as far as SoHo or Tribeca, but then I have to take a subway back to the office. But taking public transportation smacks of failure to me--and flies in the face of urban exploration. These lunch-hour excursions are rare, though, as the realities of the workday must come first.

I'll typically walk about 80 or 90 miles during a good week, though the average tends to be closer to 60 or 70 miles. Mileage doesn't equal high shot counts. It took a while, but I no longer measure success by the number of shutter clicks. Now, it's quality over quantity. Sometimes my low-yield days produce images I truly love.

Take this photo, for example. I shot this earlier in the week, on a day where I chose to trek east before heading downtown along First Avenue. This sculpture is in the midst of heavy construction in the Kip's Bay area. I'm surely not the first to take a picture of this--though I'm surely the first person to name their shot "Parking Spot."

This shot doesn't represent me at my best, so much as it represents the city at its best, fostering moments of unexpected joy.

"Parking Spot" prints are available for purchase in the NYC Street Photography gallery. 

parking spot

UNCANNY VALLEY

January 26, 2018

One thing I struggle with the most as a photographer is naming my pieces. It's not so much the titles themselves, with their frequent use of wordplay, as it is the notion that an image should succeed on its own merits. Photography is a visual medium, after all. But the right title can make the act of observation a more cerebral one. This is no mean feat, devising a title that achieves a kind of synergy that dimensionalizes a flat rendering of time and space. Yes, I realize choices regarding composition, lighting, and depth of field all lend themselves to creating layers within a photograph, but thought itself is an added layer that can sometimes only be imparted with a well-chosen title that recontextualizes a framed image.

Having said all that, in the case of this particular photo, the title is so obvious that it borders on redundant. And yet, what else could you possibly call this image? This is a game I often play with people, "What Would You Call This Shot?" Enthusiastic guesses are usually prefaced with "No, don't tell me!" So in the spirit of not telling, I leave it to readers to ponder what this shot is called. Again, it seems pretty self-explanatory to me--and seems very obvious once you know the title, so I won't spoil your fun. But I do want to circle back on the idea that a photo must make a strong visual statement first and foremost. In this case, what we have here is not a failure to communicate (to paraphrase the movie Cool Hand Luke*), but just the opposite. The idea framed in this shot comes across loud and clear. But is it a strong image? And by strong, I mean good. In this case, I think the answer is, quite frankly, no.            

What's more interesting about this image, to me at least, is in knowing that this was taken mere steps from the Empire State Building. Had I tilted the camera up, I would have captured one of the most iconic skyscrapers in the world. The essence of street photography, though, is in finding--and illuminating--the less obvious details of an urban environment.

I took this shot very early in the morning, during the work week. So finding these beers huddled on a wet bench was quite novel. (And no, I didn't title this one "Wet Bar.") Were it just one beer chilling on the bench, I would have kept walking. But two cans huddled together tell a story--even if that story can be summed up in a one-word title.

Which, again, brings us back to the idea of an strong visual succeeding on its own merits. Even when factoring in the title, this is still not a strong image, at least not from a technical standpoint. But as I mentioned in my last post, "Good Conduct," I have a certain affection for certain image/title pairings, despite my better judgment. 

So now it's your turn. What would you call this image? Here's another hint: It's not called "Chilling" either.

(*Yes, another movie reference. At least this one wasn't directed by Christopher Nolan. If you haven't seen Cool Hand Luke, it's definitely worth a watch. You'll never look at hard-boiled eggs the same way again.)


GOOD CONDUCT

November 24, 2017

As an author, I'm very familiar with the idea of killing one's darlings--and I've certainly killed my fair share of them over the course of writing three novels. (And I'm sure I'll kill more darlings in my current manuscript.) For many authors, it's easy to forget the worlds we create and the characters who inhabit them aren't as real or meaningful to others as they may be to us. Enter the editor, who usually brings with them a more objective perspective and a much-needed reality check (and the dreaded red pen). Editors have a knack for finding the parts of a manuscript that simply don't work--even if you think the opposite is true. That chapter or character beat (or even that character) that you love so much may be dragging your entire story down.

The problem is, you're too close to your work; you'd just as soon cut off your hand as you'd cut something from your baby. Even if it means making the manuscript as a whole better. These editors tend to know their stuff, though. The onus is on us as writers to be more objective about the thousands of words we've poured onto the proverbial page. Letting go is hard. Killing your darlings, harder.

When it comes to photography however, I like to think I'm more self-aware about the quality of my work. I tend to prune my camera roll on the fly, deleting shots that are objectively terrible. Sometimes there are ways to redeem a middling shot, whether through creative cropping and editing (which obviously applies more to digital photography/editing). The editing process is not meant to do so much heavy lifting, though. Use it too much, and it becomes a crutch to prop up mediocre photography. Hence the importance (for me, at least) of deleting on the fly.

That being said, I do find myself becoming protective of certain shots. Sometimes it's the luck of capturing something at the right time and place that blinds me to the overall merits of certain images.The photo included here, "Conductor," is not my strongest, but I appreciate the simplicity of it. Plus the title is just too perfect—I couldn't imagine calling it anything else. When that happens, this marriage of images and words, I have an immediate urge to share, to see if anyone else appreciates the play on words as much as I do.

So it's odd that "Conductor" is making its debut in this blog almost a year after I captured it. Maybe because deep down I know it's one of my darlings, one that speaks to me on a sentimental level. I framed a moment, preserving it for all time, or not. Essentially, all that stands between posterity and obscurity is the delete button. Photography is not unlike writing in this way. Wishing thoughts into words and words into worlds does not automatically grant amnesty for possible deletion down the road. Where the two differ, though, is street photography's immediacy. As a writer, it's easy to fret over a single word or semicolon. The closest I come to this in my photography is fretting over cropping a shot one way versus another, or deciding between sharing an image in color versus black & white.

At the end of the day, creation is really an act of self-controlled destruction, of paring away the inessential so that what remains may flourish. Sometimes, though, amnesty wins out over practicality. When that happens, you get to share a moment like "Conductor." Hopefully someone will appreciate this moment in time for what it is: fleeting, ephemeral, a ghost of our collective imaginations.

These hoped-for connections are what drive me forward as an artist. And as an artist, I'll continue to self-edit, to be mindful of darlings, to give them their due, or not. To be true to what works, or doesn't work. To temper expectations. To create. To kill. And, to quote Tom Hardy's character from the film Inception, "You mustn't be afraid to dream bigger, darling." (I promise, this will be my last reference to Inception. Probably. Maybe.)

"Conductor" prints are available for purchase in the NYC Street Photography gallery. 


WELCOME TO THE KICK

November 19, 2017

Inaugural blog posts are always hard to write. But what's even harder is maintaining a new blog over time. This will be especially challenging for me, given how busy I am. In addition to photography, I also run a greeting card business, review TV shows like Fear The Walking Dead and Preacher for Den of Geek, and I'm working on my fourth novel. If you're really curious about these projects, you can read more about them on my author website, davidsezapanta.com. In addition to all of that, I have a full-time job, too. So starting a blog seems a little insane (because it is a bit insane). But while we're all here, I want to talk a bit about runner-up photos I call "B sides."

One of the underlying principles in the way I approach street photography is finding unique ways to look at a city like NYC that's been photographed millions (if not billions) of times. It took me a while to understand this about myself as a photographer. Indeed, I shot hundreds (if not thousands) of photos before I came to understand that what I was even doing every day could be considered street photography. But along the way, after several months, I started to appreciate that NYC, big as it is, is still the sum of its parts. And I was becoming more interested in those parts versus the whole.

bright idea

I've taken my fair share of traditional NYC landmarks like the Empire State Building. Ditto the Flatiron Building. And Times Square. The list goes on and on. But it's when you start looking past the obvious choices that you begin to uncover the quirks of the city and the beauty of urban decay. So what does all of this have to do with my so-called B sides?

The idea of B sides goes back to looking at NYC in new and novel ways. Part of this is looking at the smaller details of bigger thing. Like the Empire State Building. I've taken more shots of odd little things near the base of the building--like a discarded flip-flop in the street or cracks in the sidewalk--than I have of the ESB proper. Another part of my approach relies on the marriage of images and words. A thoughtful, carefully chosen title can truly transform a photo. Not all of my titles are winners. And sometimes it can take months to come up with one that elevates the image it's naming.  What's fascinating, though, is when you have more than one good title. Which is where the B side comes in.

The image to the left is called "Bright Idea." Unlike some photographers, I'm not comfortable (or confident enough) to take only one or two shots of a given subject. When it comes to street photography specifically, sometimes you stumble across a scenario that really grabs your attention but you don't have the luxury of firing off a lot of shots (as you might when shooting street art or a building). In "Bright Idea," the seated woman is shielding her eyes from the sun and not blocking her face from being photographed. How do I know this? Well, because in this case I also took a shot from the reverse angle a couple of seconds later.

blinder

What's interesting about the second shot is the sign advertising eye exams and contact lenses in the window behind her. The inclusion of this sign transforms the entire idea behind the shot, especially when it's paired with a different title. In this case, "Blind Spot" suddenly makes a lot more sense. Of the two shots, I ultimately prefer the first one, but I have a hard time simply dismissing the second shot. Hence, a new B side is born. 

All of this being said, while luck plays heavily into street photography, I think there's a fair amount of luck in discerning juxtapositions that may exist within a given image. This is especially important (to me, at least) when naming my photos. Sometimes a title comes to me immediately, but more often than not, a surprising amount of research goes on behind the scenes, whether it's delving into word origins or song lyrics or even Greek mythology. In the case of "Bright Idea" and its B side, though, just studying the images themselves was enough for me to unlock their titles.

I don't have much to add here except that I do have more B sides, which I hope to share in future posts. I can't promise that this blog will be updated regularly, though once every week or two seems like a fairly realistic goal. If you've made it this far, thank you. If you've liked what you've read, please consider sharing your thoughts in the comments below.

And while we're talking about titles, "The Kick" was inspired by Christopher Nolan's 2010 film, Inception. The image at the top of this page is likewise inspired by the same movie. If you haven't seen it yet, I do recommend you at least watch the trailer.

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