May 20, 2015

Quadcopter Photography: A Bird's-Eye Perspective

An Interview with Alan Nyiri, quadcopter expert and Santa Fe Photographic Workshops instructor for Quadcopter Photography: A Bird's-Eye View

So, Alan, how did you get started in photography? What first interested you about it?

I've been drawn to photography for as long as I can remember. In grade school in the 1950's, the Walt Disney nature programs captivated me, and I dreamed about becoming a naturalist cinematographer. I bought my first Kodak Hawkeye camera with my paper route money in the sixth grade, and immediately started photographing everything around me. I discovered that the printed image could be my personal time machine:  When I looked at a print, I immediately recalled almost everything that had happened on that day. In high school, I basically taught myself black-and-white developing and printing in the school darkroom, and of course became president of the camera club. I was quite the geek! 

By the time I left college, I knew that I would make my life about discovery through photography. Photography had become the lens through which I discovered the world, and the tool for remembering it later. Photography became not only the tool which help me really attune, focus, SEE and relate to the world around me; it helped me recognize the minutia and the patterns of life which most people let slip by, unnoticed. It also became a form of meditation, BE-ING in the landscape, a being in the moment, waiting, watching for ...  that ...perfect ... moment! Click

How did you get into drone photography?

I've been making aerial images professionally since 1981. I wish I'd logged all the hours spent in Cessna 172s and Robinson R-22 helicopters. In 2002, I received the assignment from the UC President Dick Atkinson to document all 9 of the UC campuses, as a follow up to the documentary project done 40 years earlier by Ansel Adams.  

I aspired to create some beautiful campus landscapes, in the tradition of William Garnett. But I rarely got my R-22 for the sweet light or the best light, and I started dreaming of other options: tethered balloons, ultra lights, powered parachutes, you know... vehicles which could put me exactly when and where I wanted to be. 

In 2011-12 I was creating images for a coffee table book for Cornell University, and we wanted to create some fabulous aerials. That's when multi-rotor vehicles (MRVs) first came across my radar. They were big, heavy and many said hard to fly, so I put the idea aside and rented my helicopters... but I didn't put that idea away. So in April 2013, when I saw an ad in the B&H newsletter announcing the release of the DJI Phantom with GoPro3, I knew that I had to jump on this technology. I mean, I was ready; I'd been waiting my whole life for this.

What interests or fascinates you about drone photography in particular?

Man has always yearned to fly with the birds, to see what they see. We're drawn to high places instinctively, whether to look out for approaching danger, or to just dream and plan and ... look ahead. Artists like Grant Wood and Jamie Wythe have experimented with an aerial perspective, a birds-eye perspective, to great effect. Photographers are always looking for a unique viewpoint: well, HERE IT IS!!! People now have the opportunity to see what the birds see, to enjoy that unique perspective, and make art from what they see. 

Personally, I've never been a pioneer or a groundbreaker—it took me years before I fully embraced digital capture around 2004. But this was an opportunity for me to do all those things, and finally be a pioneer. On the first wave, or at least the second wave. And let me tell you, the view from up here is FANTASTIC!!!

There’s been a lot of talk in the news lately about drone photography: safety concerns, rules, proposed legislation, and the like. Can you share your perspective on some of these issues? What are a drone owner’s responsibilities?

This industry is unfortunately going through some uncomfortable growing pains during these early days, and there is a lot of misinformation out there. I'm afraid the media has glommed onto this issue of intrusion of privacy and public safety and blown it WAY out of proportion. It's pretty laughable, really - with a small telescope in a high-rise apartment building someone can invade your privacy, over there in the next building, far more easily than with a camera-mounted multirotor. But, this is the sexy issue of the day for the media. 

The FAA seems to have been caught with their pants down, or has some pressure being exerted on them. They've claimed to have regulations and laws in place about the commercial operation of multirotor vehicles when in fact all that existed were policy guidelines regarding radio controlled model aircraft. These guidelines go back to 1986, and don’t prohibit it, they are just guidelines. There are currently no Federal laws prohibiting the use of MRV cameras for real estate work, crop surveillance, power line inspection, bridge inspection, roof inspection, etc. Regulations are inevitable, and welcome. I personally will be among the first to go to school and apply for a license when the procedure becomes set, but it's all speculation now. 

The National Park service has overreacted badly, in my estimation, by placing a moratorium on MRV flights in the National Parks. Yosemite was the lynch pin case, I believe, when the Park Manager banned their use citing noise and safety issues. Have you ever heard 30 Harleys drive through Yosemite Valley? Now that’s noise. You're at far greater risk trying to cross the road there than getting hit by an errant MRV. Again, I think it’s all being blown out of proportion, and I’m not sure why. 

Interestingly, in all of the states where drone prohibition laws are being enacted, it’s all being focused on police. They’re trying to head off the use (and misuse) by police. So there are reasons to be concerned, but not about the type of work we do with aerial photography.

I'm confident that it will all work out in time - it has to!

It sounds like a drone photographer’s responsibilities are very much the same as the responsibilities of any photographer: Be considerate, be competent, be respectful. Have permission to photograph what you’re photographing. Know the rules, and so on.

Exactly. I live in the beautiful Texas countryside, and I can go up and find a spot to photograph a beautiful panorama But I also recognize that everybody’s got a fence around their property, and their access roads are gated. I don’t know what they’re trying to keep in or what they’re trying to keep out. The law says I can fly over their property, but if I do fly over, will I be invading their privacy, or be perceived to be invading their privacy?  Planes fly over private property all the time, and no one worries about that. Again, it’s just a matter of perception.

I try to drive responsibly, operate my lawn mower responsibly - LIVE responsibly. And I also endeavor to fly responsibly, in good weather, away from crowds or traffic, in a safe and controlled manner and place.  But of course there are knuckleheads out there who are going to pull dumb stunts, and fly irresponsibly. If the media wants to focus on citizen safety issues, I'd suggest that they keep this "drone safety issue" in proper perspective.   

On the flip side of that, how can drone users protect themselves and their drones from being damaged, sued, or otherwise hassled? How can someone keep up with the changing laws?

Most people’s reactions are positive. People are drawn to them and delighted by them.
Everyone loves to see these, everyone kind of turns into a five-year-old when they see them flying around. Police, park rangers, 80-year-old grandmothers all come by and say “That is just so cool!”

For times when reactions are not positive, the best way a pilot can protect themself is to operate safely and in complete control and to know the laws, their rights and their responsibilities. Fortunately, when it comes to keeping up with the laws, there are some attorneys out there like Peter Sachs in Connecticut who is both a helicopter pilot and an avid MRV hobbyist. He, and others like him, have gone a long way to dispel the myths and rumors which have surrounded this hobby and fledgling business; I think there are as many rumors about MRVs as there are MRVs out there! Which is to say, a lot. His Facebook group, UAV Legal News & Discussion, is a great place to stay up to date with the emerging legal issues as they evolve. 

The best thing we pilots can do is to fly responsibly and anticipate troublesome situations, then head them off. I once had a pilot approach me as I was the filming the Christmas lights of a Florida beachfront estate. I had the owner's permission, and was operating my quadcopter with complete control. This guy came over to me, demanded that I land immediately, informed me that I was breaking numerous laws. He was acting like a jackass. I calmly finished my video pass, rose to 100 feet, explained to him that I was breaking no laws, invited him to cite even one, flew back over the road and brought my craft down for a hand-catch landing (that shows your flying skill and control). Then I inquired why he was trying to intimidate me. Turns out that he was a disgruntled MRV pilot who had crashed several and was also concerned that his business flying commercial photographers around was going to suffer. I was able to turn an opponent into an ally that evening. The best way to disarm someone who’s getting bothered is to remain calm and collected and to fly responsibly.

What can a participant expect from this workshop?

We anticipate that we'll see both beginners who have never piloted an MRV before, and moderately experienced pilots who want to make more successful images. So we will train everyone with the basics of both safe and effective piloting and the techniques of creating strong, successful images. 

While the basic elements of good photographic technique still apply, certain choices will affect the success of these aerial images: subject choice, camera angle and altitude, time of day, the use of color or black and white—we'll explore all of these issues. Preparation of your craft is also important so you're ready to drop everything and respond when the light and subject become optimal. We'll focus on preparation as well as photography.

In short, we're gonna show our participants how to do this RIGHT! This will be the workshop I would have taken two years ago if it had been offered. Within that first month of flying, I realized that by teaching myself how to do this effectively, I was designing a future workshop for others. Well, that future is here.

Evaluating images will be important, because the images you’re dissatisfied with are the ones we’ll learn the most from. We’ll be doing that in the field, so we can look at what we’ve got, and go back up and try them again. That’s the advantage of the hands-on workshop. 

I’ve always tried to create an atmosphere in my workshops of being the best friend you wish you had (who knows all about this stuff.) So you can ask all your questions, without fear, without worrying you’re not knowledgeable enough, and feel comfortable learning.

I also try to send people as much information in advance of the workshop as possible, so participants can mentally practice the movements and the technique of flying. That really helps ease the anxiety of flying a drone for the first time.

For those who have never flown an MRV before, there will be quadcopters available to borrow and try out! DJI is partnering with Santa Fe Workshops on this program, and they are going to provide the 8 quadcopters and accessories, technical assistance, and training to support this workshop and all participants.

Will you be creating video as well as still images?

We will be focusing on still photography, but the opportunity to make videos with this technology is so strong, so compelling, we are absolutely going to cover it in an introductory way. If you really get interested in video after the introduction, in the future, we plan to offer dedicated drone video workshops.

How long does it take to learn to fly a drone? Is it difficult?

The first morning I owned a DJI Phantom, I successfully flew it all around my back field without difficulty or issue. I had never flown any kind of radio controlled aircraft before, but I had mentally practiced flying one for several weeks after watching instructional videos explaining the transmitter controls. That afternoon I put the camera on and flew up to 400 ft in altitude and 1,000 feet away. I tried the "Return to Home" feature which automatically flies the craft home if radio connection is broken, and lands it. This GPS feature is fantastic, and the electronic gyro sensors in the MRV make it easy to keep the craft level, in position, and ready to become your 100 foot tall tripod. By evening, I was making images of the historic church on our town green which no one had ever made before - ever! I can't explain that feeling of being the first to ever have this vantage point.

So long story short: yes, they're easy to fly. I'd say that anyone with normal hand-eye coordination who is willing to put in some practice will enjoy an exhilarating experience.

Is drone photography a flash in the pan, or is it here to stay?

A flash in the pan? No way! Until humans learn to levitate, this will be around. This is in its infancy now. There are so many commercial applications in development now that it is certain that this will grow exponentially over just the next few years. You ain't seen nuthin', yet!

Is digital a flash in the pan? Is color a flash in the pan? People said so when these developments first came along, and then look where they are today.

You’re not going to believe—I’M not going to believe—where this is going to be in ten years. 

What are some of the applications of drone photography? What’s a compelling reason to invest in this technology? Are there commercial or other opportunities for this type of work?

There’s an amazing range of new applications that this is bringing about. These machines are safer and less expensive than small aircraft and can easily provide access to remote areas. The commercial applications are actually MUCH larger than what the FAA has been focusing on. Real estate is the first thing that comes to people’s minds, but there is so much more. 

I just spent 2 1/2 months consulting for the Florida State Parks Service, to name just one. We found MRVs to be an efficient tool for pinpointing wild fires when they first break out, for monitoring a prescribed burn in progress and for using the videos for follow-up training, for exploring inaccessible backcountry looking for invasive plant species, and for documenting areas undergoing habitat restoration. The big surprise was the potential for making virtual park tours, for those folks physically unable to hike or kayak the parks themselves. The Florida Parks Service is currently evaluating how they want to implement these new tools.

Other people are finding other uses - I mentioned a few earlier: crop surveillance, power line inspection, bridge inspection, roof inspection. I see a big potential for agriculture, a safe and time-efficient means for a farmer to go out and inspect fields, even with IR sensors to "see" leaf color. I met a crop sprayer from Louisiana who has a fleet of four helicopters. He saw me flying my MRV and immediately grasped the importance for his business: his clients often want him to fly them over their fields, which is costly and potentially dangerous. Within a half hour, he'd ordered two Phantoms on line and he now takes his clients on virtual tours of their property, with no risk to anyone.

At least one company has designed software to autonomously fly a Phantom to a designated height, fly a grid pattern while taking pictures and then return to home - all at the touch of one button. Their software then compiles these images into a grid map for biological or geological land surveys. Another use is 3D aerial mapping, useful for archeological mapping or construction work.
And have you heard about Amazon's plans...?

For fine art and landscape photographers, it's endless. People are creating images that have never been done before. These images are not possible with a helicopter, not possible with a boom. But they are possible with MRVs.

What’s the most fun and exciting thing about drone photography?

Are you kidding? This is a BLAST, man! We're going places and getting perspectives you can't get from a helicopter or plane, or a balloon, kite or cherry-picker truck! We're flying in places and creating images NO PERSON HAS EVER MADE BEFORE!!! We're the Wright Brothers of MRV photography  - I haven't met a serious photographer yet who, after watching me for five minutes and looking at my ground monitor over my shoulder, didn't want to try this for himself. Grandmas, firemen, farmers, policemen - everybody who sees me flying becomes a five-year-old child again and comes over to investigate.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Yes, I'd like to share my workshop instructor philosophy: Ever since I started teaching, I've made it my goal to be that knowledgeable best friend we all wish we had, to show us just what we needed to know, and what to ignore for now, who knew the ins and outs of the subject, who had hands-on, professional experience, and who could explain a technical point clearly and concisely. For me, that's what being an effective instructor is all about. Thanks for asking.

Thanks Alan, we're looking forward to seeing you here in July!

Alan Nyiri will teach Quadcopter Photography: Photography with a Bird's-Eye View at Santa Fe Workshops July 19-24. For more information and workshop details, visit

May 4, 2015

Interview with Andrew Hetherington - from

Santa Fe Workshops is thrilled to welcome Andrew Hetherington to Santa Fe this summer, when he will lead a new workshop, Creative Environmental Portraiture, on July 12-17. This interview with Andrew is a repost of an interview with The original interview appeared here
Jonathan Blaustein: You’re from Ireland. Is that right?
Andrew Hetherington: Correct. Yes.
JB: How far does a good accent take you?
AH: Good question. It certainly helped get my foot in the door and I have certainly laid it on thick at times to break the ice. Then sprinkle some irony, sarcasm and charm on top for the full Irish effect.
One has to use what one has. You know?
JB: Don’t hate the playa, hate the game. Right?
AH: We wouldn’t say that in Ireland. But…I guess, yeah.
JB: (laughing) There’s the sarcasm. I guess. Whatever.
AH: Let’s face it. It is partly a game, and how you choose to play it. I think you’ve got to use all the tools in the arsenal. Do you need to take good photographs? Absolutely, but what else sets you apart from the pack?
I recently photographed Conor McGregor the mixed martial arts fighter aka The Notorious AKA from Dublin here in New York for Esquire magazine. We hadn’t met before but he knew where I was from as soon as I spoke my first word. I said off the bat that I was a shite photographer and the only reason I was on the shoot was that I was Irish. Ice broken.
Doesn’t matter to me whether I am photographing a celebrity, a person in the street or a slice of bread I try to be as genuine and sincere as possible.
JB: You could not have set me up more perfectly for the next question. You used the word arsenal, I’m curious as to whether you’d agree that Arsenal Football Club are likely to beat the pants off of Liverpool this upcoming Saturday?
AH: I have a funny feeling they will, yes. They are the form team and we are lacking in world class players like Ozil and Sanchez in the middle of the park. So I expect us to get well-beaten, although secretly I hope we will win. Being a Liverpool supporter, naturally.
JB: That was not the answer I was expecting. The guy I interviewed last week (Dewi Lewis) was a Manchester United fan, and he was such a homer, he defended them to the death under all circumstances. So I thought I was going to get your goat, but instead, you were honest.
AH: Well, we are having a mixed season. The usual highs and lows. I’m very much a realist. We haven’t played particularly well against the big clubs. If we’d beaten Manchester United the weekend before last, I was hopeful we would make a charge for a Top 4 spot, but I don’t think we’ll get there. We are looking at 5th, and Tottenham and Southampton are nipping at our heels.
The dreamer in me thinks we can win the whole thing of course. I photographed the Liverpool owner, John Henry, right before the end of last season. We were both really optimistic, believing that we would do it. He hit me with some statistics he had run, being a statistically-minded owner, saying that we had a really good percentage chance of winning the league title. The shoot was right after the Manchester City game and the day after the Hillsborough documentary aired on ESPN. It was a very emotional session that one.
JB: Isn’t that the beauty of sports, no matter how you crunch the numbers, there’s no algorithm that can predict that Steven Gerard’s going to slip, or lose his mind and get red carded against Manchester United.
The two defining moments of the last 8 months of Liverpool football could not have been predicted by a computer on Earth. Isn’t that crazy?
AH: Yes, it’s a funny old game as the saying goes. Both events were gut wrenching. I couldn’t look at the UTD game. Already dreaming about next season at this stage.
JB: I only know you’re a Liverpool fan because I watched a video on your website called “Meet the Hetheringtons.” It’s awesome, and everyone who reads this interview should go watch it now.
Did you direct it? Who was the official “maker” of this video, which inter-spliced interviews with you and Tim Hetherington? Was that your baby, or collaborative?
AH: That was my idea. I’d always known of Tim.
One hoped that one was the only “Hetherington” photographer. If there were 20 Andrew Hetheringtons, how do you differentiate yourself from one another?
So I remember seeing Tim’s name in “Vanity Fair,” when I was getting my thing going, and just being in awe of his talent. Early on, in the first couple of years that I was getting into American photography, it was always alphabetical, so I would be before him.
I’d have some portrait, and Tim would have some Earth-shatteringly brilliant picture from Afghanistan, or whatever. It was inevitable we would meet one day, and the opportunity came at the New York Photo Festival, when that was going strong. We were introduced by a mutual friend, Jon Levy, who was at Foto8 at the time.
I had no idea what to expect. And then it turns out he’s literally larger then life in person, tall, handsome, engaging. The complete package. And I’m bald, and 5’8″.
He was the sweetest, most generous charismatic life force, and I figured I had to do something fun with him for the blog so the idea of the video popped into my head. He was totally game and on board, up for some fun. I shot video of him answering the questions. Through our conversation, we figured out that we had some stuff in common, like both being Liverpool supporters.
JB: That was what struck me. I never met the man. Just knowing his work, which was so life-and-death serious, I assumed he was a serious guy. But in the video, he had a wry smile on his face, and came across as funny and down-to-earth.
You’re confirming that he was a fun, cool dude?
AH: Yeah. People close to him hadn’t seen the video until after his death and were touched when they saw it.
We weren’t best friends, by any means.
JB: I understand.
AH: We were friendly. We did an event together for Resource Magazine, I think, out at Root Studios in Brooklyn, where they had a little film evening, inviting photographers who were dabbling in motion to showcase some material. They got in touch with me to show the “Meet the Hetheringtons” video, and in turn I put them in touch with Tim with a view to them screening his “Sleeping Soldiers” piece.
He agreed to have it shown, and showed up for the evening himself. I think he was working in Amsterdam, and managed to get back for the evening. The two of us are sitting there, and they show mine first, and then they show his right afterwards. They couldn’t have been more polar opposite content wise, but it was a fun.
A special moment I will treasure.
I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me that opportunity, and for spending a little time with me. He was definitely one of the greats. Talent, creativity and humanity just oozed from him. I had the utmost admiration for what he did, and who he was.
JB: Well, you’re really anticipating my question. This one sets up perfectly. Sure, you had some things in common, and were both Liverpool supporters. But you are Irish, and he was English.
Here’s the real question: Who are better drinkers, the Irish or the English? Who takes that one?
AH: (laughing) Oh wow. Can we have a score draw on that one?
JB: That’s a politically correct answer right there.
AH: Well, I mean, I have a lot of English friends and a lot of Irish friends. And what about the Scots? And the Welsh? I think on any good night, as in any good day on the pitch, anyone can play a blinder, getting back to the sporting analogies.
JB: OK. Fair enough. I asked the question, you answered it. You mentioned a few minutes ago that back in the day, you were a serious blogger. Let’s talk about that. There’s something I’m super curious about, and I’m sure you’ve been asked before.
What is the, or a, Jackanory? It sounds like a mythical animal.
AH: If you were Irish or English, you would know all about this. When we were kids in the 70’s, there was a children’s television show called “Jackanory,” where a celebrity, a writer, or a reader would basically read a story, from a book, on television. You don’t get any more high tech than that.
It became a slang term. What’s the Jackanory? means what’s the story?
I knew early on that something interesting was happening with the blogs. I wanted to be involved, and I wanted to figure out how to use this tool, partly for fear of getting left behind too (laughing).
The idea was to treat the blog as if it as my own online magazine, so it wouldn’t be Andrew Hetherington’s blog just about Andrew Hetherington. Whats The Jackanory? seemed like the perfect name. So I searched the URL, it was available and I bought it. And that was that.
JB: I expect that our readers will know who you are, and that you’re working like crazy for the biggest magazines, but how much of your current success would you attribute to the fact that you built a following, got name recognition, and people learned more about you through the blog? Do you think it had a significant impact on what came next?
AH: Yes. I really do. I’d been in the game a long time. I started off in Ireland, and began again in the US. In the late 90’s, I started shooting for magazines like “Cosmopolitan,” and “Mademoiselle.” Primarily doing fashion and beauty photographs, but mixing it up with portraiture and music photography.
Like a lot of young photographers, I thought I could do it all. After the tragedies of September 11th there was a period of uncertainty in the publishing world as companies circled the wagons unsure of the immediate future. A few of my clients closed up shop including “Mademoiselle” who would have been my biggest at the time. I also realized I had got as far as I could in the world of fashion photography.
I do appreciate the art. I think you have to live and breathe fashion to for the work to be genuine, and I was losing interest. Throughout my career, I’ve always tried to adapt, and change.
I saw the blog as a chance to be creative, to promote myself and also as a way to promote other people and work I liked. It was a great venue for me creativity because I could do little photo projects, little videos, little whatevers. If it didn’t work no worries, move on, next. It pushed me.
The timing was right too, because it was pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-Instagram. The feed was less cluttered. It was also a very exciting time, with bloggers like Alec Soth, or Rob here at A Photo Editor, the Bitter Photographer.
People in the photo industry started to use blogs to find photographers, look at work, information and so on.
JB: You’re talking about being adaptable, and being slightly ahead of the curve, by setting up a blog at the right time. I discovered the blogosphere in 2009, back when Jörg Colberg had a blog roll on Conscientious, and for me, that was what was going on. I used that as a portal, and found your blog that way.
AH: That’s what happened to me too. When I was working as an assistant, I worked a lot at rental studios. It was very social, and I got to meet other photographers and assistants at the studios or at the labs.
Then when you start to shoot, it becomes a little less social, but at the time there was a communal darkroom called Print Space where everyone went to make C-prints. That’s where I met just about everyone: established and young photographers.
With the advent of digital, naturally the darkroom wasn’t as heavily trafficked as before. So someone turned me on to Jörg’s blog one day too, and I went through the blogroll as well, and started clicking, and before you know it, I’d spent two days on these links.
JB: It was crazy.
AH: I said, “Wow.” Because this was what I was missing. I used to see all this new work, and prints before they were in magazines, at that darkroom. I missed that whole community thing, and with Jorg I discovered a new community online.
I was curious and I reached out to Jörg and said how much I liked what he had going on. As well as being a friendly email, there was a method to the madness, because I sent him the link to a photographer friend of mine whose work I knew he would enjoy.
I knew my work wasn’t for Jörg, but I said “Check this out. I think you might like it, and it may be something you could feature.” He posted it a few days later, and I said to my friend, “Hey, can you check your site visits?”
He did, and the numbers were phenomenal, and I thought, this is really something. Things are moving in a new direction.
JB: You had your finger on the pulse then. Good things happened. You’re in a prime position in the industry now, so let’s look forward a little bit. Do you ever think about what comes next?
If you were to theorize about what the industry landscape might look like in five years, what would you say?
AH: (laughing.) Wow. That’s a loaded question. I don’t know. Is it all going down the shitter? Who knows?
JB: Nobody KNOWS. That’s the whole point.
I’m putting you on the prognostication seat. You can choose to sit there, or you can choose to pass. That’s your choice.
AH: I might have to pass on this one, I always feel like I’m just beginning anyways. I like to think I am still emerging. But then someone said I was a veteran recently and I took umbrage (laughing) to that so a photographer friend said I was an emerging veteran and I liked that (laughing).
JB: Well, let’s go there then. When we’re starting out, I think we all have role models. People we admire and want to emulate. Who was that for you? Who do you look to and think, “Damn, I just love how they conduct themselves, or what their work looks like?”
AH: I admire anyone who’s had a long career, whether it be a photographer, an artist, a filmmaker. Anyone in the creative field. That’s all I want to do. There are so many one hit wonders. So many people who come and go.
Being an assistant, and working with a lot of photographers here in New York in the 90’s who had very established and lucrative careers, a lot of them have disappeared. You never know what curveball life or your career can’t throw you at any moment.
I try to take a very measured approach, and be cognizant of change. I try to adapt. I want to learn new things, because I don’t have all the answers, by any means.
I admire people who are in it for the long haul. You’ve got to hand it to the Rolling Stones. Even U2. You have to admire them. You can’t not. How many bands started when U2 did, and are no longer around. I am not a fan of their music by the way.
JB: Looking at your website, you shoot people, places and things. Even among celebrities, you’ve got the hot chef foodies, like Tony Bourdain. You’ve got actors, comedians, athletes. Anyone who knows photography understands that to do that kind of work, you’ve got to be good with people.
What are your go-to moves to put people at ease? Beyond presumably just being a grounded human being, what are your tricks to make people comfortable, when you don’t have a lot of time with them?
AH: I put the accent on thick, for starters (laughing).
JB: That’s why it was my first question! I’m no dummy, man.
AH: (laughing) I’m usually a bumbling idiot I think. I like to be engaged so I try to have a conversation, which might be detrimental, if you only have 30 seconds with somebody.
JB: Did Tony Bourdain actually eat the pig in the photo, when you were all done?
AH: So the Tony story was great, because I’m a big fan, and I like to cook. That one was for “People” magazine. Anyone who knows Anthony Bourdain will know that he’s had a colorful past, so the “People” angle was that he’d recently gotten married and had a young child.
This was the new, post-heroin Anthony Bourdain. Softer around the edges. So the magazine had arranged for me to scout his place in advance, which was great. I remember that it was a really wet day here in New York, and I got totally soaked.
He lives in Mid town, in one of those hi rise towers, and the door man sends me up, and I’m just drenched. I knock on the door, half expecting there to be an assistant or housekeeper to answer, and there’s Tony.
I was like, “Oh Shit!” I said to him, “What if this doesn’t go well? If I say the wrong thing now, will that scupper the shoot? Will you request somebody else?”
He was incredibly gracious, showed me around and when we came back to shoot a week later, he couldn’t have been more professional. He knows how it works, and said, “Let’s just do this,” so we got stuck in and did it.
At the end of the shoot, we hung around and ate pig, and he had a spread of cheeses, and we chilled out for a half an hour which is very unusual. And he was sweet enough to sign my copy of “Kitchen Confidential.”
Every now and again I’ll do the selfie thing or get something signed, but that’s always the furthest thing from my mind on the shoot.
JB: So the answer is that he ate the pig. He had to eat the pig. That was a given.
AH: Yes. That was a given.
JB: You’ve interviewed people. You know how this works. That’s why I led with the accent. In my mind, I imagined that it would go over well.
It puts people at ease, when you can be a bit self-deprecating. Not seem full of yourself. Do you see your job as putting people at ease, and getting them to feel relaxed and comfortable in your presence?
AH: Absolutely. I’m looking for a moment. I’m hoping that a moment’s going to happen at some stage, whether it be in someone’s office or on seamless. The more relaxed and comfortable they are with me the more likely that’s going to happen.
I like to keep things pretty simple technically, so I’m able to move around and react to whats happening in front of me.
I like to watch people when they’re doing what they do. That’s not always possible, but I encourage people, “If we weren’t here, what would you do? Or how would you sit in that chair?”
Obviously, once the camera comes out, people can become very self-aware and I have found that some of the best moments come when I am physically packing the camera in the bag, and I look around and say, “Hold on! That’s perfect!” So I bring the camera back out.
What was the question?
JB: Well, you got it. Don’t worry. The answer was good enough.
AH: (laughing) So I tend to ramble along like that. I know my assistants have problems understanding what I say sometimes. Maybe it’s the accent (laughing) not the mumbling or its a combo.
I do take the work seriously, but I try to have fun.
I’m fortunate to shoot regularly. When you’re working for a magazine or a commercial client, and there are time constraints, if you work once a month it’s very difficult when you get that one shoot, you’re totally invested. You’re nervous, and you over think it. It’s difficult.
But if you’re shooting regularly, for me anyways it’s so much looser and freer. The pictures come so much easier. If I have a bad day, I know I get to go again tomorrow, so some of the pressure is off, somewhat.
Will I beat myself up? Yes. Am I ever happy? No. But I do try to have no regrets after a shoot. If only I had done this or that or asked the subject if they would be willing to do such and such. So I always ask and if they say no that’s okay at least I asked.
JB: You’ve used the word creative several times, and we’re talking about portraiture. And about the fact that you’re out and about in the world.
This interview is being sponsored by the Santa Fe Workshops, because you’re going to be teaching a workshop there this summer called…Creative Environmental Portraiture.
JB: There you go. It’s what you do, and what we’ve been talking about. So we covered that, with respect to being a working photographer. But what about teaching? Is this something that’s in your wheelhouse? Do you do it a lot? Do you enjoy it?
AH: This the first time I’ve done something like this, so I’m really excited. I have done quite a bit of mentoring, which I thoroughly enjoyed, because it’s actually quite therapeutic. It gives me new ideas too.
Usually, it’s with photographers starting out, and we get into a dialogue, and I’m good for that, provided I have the time. I’ve learned just as much through these sessions.
With respect to the workshop, I’ve been brainstorming the curriculum. I value people’s time and money, so I am totally invested in making it worth their while on all levels.
JB: It’s a few months out, so I don’t expect you to have it all dialed in, but what do you think your students can expect to learn?
AH: All the things you don’t learn in photo school (laughing).
Participants will execute portrait assignments in various situations under real shoot conditions.
I have a lot of experience in the school of how to make something out of nothing and I’ll throw them the crazy curveballs that have been thrown at me over the years.
More often then not its these type of shoots are more about problem solving on your feet all the while having to create a compelling image no matter how shitty the location, weather or what not turns out.
Also, how do you work on developing a signature style, because I think that’s important, especially when you’re starting out. It’s important that the photo editors and art buyers can recognize your photographs. That’s definitely been important for me.
In the beginning, I thought I could do everything, and I’d go into meetings with photo editors with three or four different portfolios. While the work was decent, people were confused, because there wasn’t a single visual language.
The course will be the full immersive Hetherington experience, accent and all if that takes your fancy.
JB: Have you ever been to Santa Fe before, or is this going to be your first time?
AH: This is going to be my first time in Santa Fe too.
JB: What are you expecting out of New Mexico? Is it all informed by “Breaking Bad?”
AH: I have been to Albuquerque, so it is all informed by Albuquerque. Yes.
Hetheringtyon_OReillyJB: How did I know? I’m mildly psychic. Because you’ve been so diplomatic the few times I tried to draw you out, I had a question where I was going to put you on the spot about Bill O’Reilly, but I won’t do that.
AH: Try me.
JB: Is he Satan?
AH: (laughing) (pause)
JB: You’re like, “Damn. He’s right. I do have to be diplomatic. I can’t answer that.”
AH: When you’re shooting someone like that, and you do not share their political beliefs, does that taint my approach? I have to say not.
JB: Of course. You’re a pro.
AH: I try to be even-keeled. But someone like that, he’s smart. He’s not going to fall into any visual traps. The image that ran in “Newsweek” was shot right before he taped his TV show.
The bane of a lot of these shoots is these guys end up getting caked in TV makeup, which really isn’t photo-friendly at all. So I liked the fact that he looked like weird made up old white guy.
JB: Regular people have a fascination with fame. That’s why fame exists, and why those famous people make so much money. When you do your job, you have to become inured to it. It doesn’t shake you up.
When you’re so used to shooting people like that, would you admit to having a bucket list? Is there anyone that you really want to photograph, and you’d get all excited about it? Obama? Rihanna?
AH: I don’t even care. I don’t.
JB: Nobody?
AH: Nobody. I’m just happy to be anywhere with anyone. It’s not just the pictures it’s the life experience and the best have come from the most unexpected assignments.
The celebrity thing is not the be all and end all for me. And I don’t necessarily go out of my way to make people look attractive. My lighting is pretty in your face. I don’t come with a lot of bells and whistles.
I’ll be looking at stuff in magazines, or online, and think “I wish I could light like that guy. It’s just beautiful.” And then I’ve got to remind myself, “That’s not what you do.”
JB: I figured you were going to say that. But what if you got hired to shoot Putin? How would you deal with that?
AH: Well in my case it would be on camera flash and boom.
Platon has a great story of his shoot with Putin.
JB: Right.
AH: I assisted Platon a little bit, so when I had to photograph Clinton, I emailed him, because I knew that he’d photographed him. I wanted to get his advice, which was stellar.
Basically, he said, “Be yourself. But be prepared. Be prepared. Be prepared. Be technically prepared. Make sure nothing will go wrong, technically, and if it does, make sure you have a backup to the backup to the backup. Be prepared and be yourself. Oh and enjoy the moment.”
I took his advice and made sure that if Plan A failed, Plan B would work, and that my assistants and I were all drilled. You realize that in a situation like that, the time you’re given is the time you’re going to be given.
There is no extra time. 10 minutes quickly becomes 5 minutes which can become 30 seconds in an instant.
In that case, the magazine had two scenarios they wanted covered in limited time, so I had to make sure that was possible. For me, it was a little harder too because he’s not going to pick his nose. Or bend over and scratch his bum. Or do anything wacky. In this case I knew going in that these pictures were going to be relatively straight forward and I was comfortable with that. It’s a photographic record of this man at this time in his life.
JB: I once saw a video with Platon discussing that shoot he did at the UN where he got something like 30 seconds with every world leader. It made me realize how little your average photographer knows about that level of cutthroat perfection.
AH: Platon is a great example of that. Delivering a telling iconic image in a signature way, in challenging situations. Not only do you need to be a talented photographer but you literally need to be a diplomat too to navigate all the stuff happening on the periphery.
JB: He’s got the accent too.
AH: He’s got the accent too. I learned a lot from him. Including how to exploit the accent (laughing).
JB: Well, I’m from Jersey, so I could always amp it up and pretend that I sound like Tony Soprano if I had to. But then again, I don’t do that kind of work.
If you don’t have an accent, you have to make one up, I suppose.
AH: But it still has to be genuine.
JB: Dammit.
AH: I can’t have a funky haircut. But I do have an accent and a beard (laughing).
JB: There it is. It helps with the branding. But we’ve covered so much ground, why don’t we bring it back to the beginning. Since you’re going to be in New Mexico in the not-too-distant future, why don’t we have a friendly little wager on Saturday’s game.
How about we bet a pint on the Arsenal-Liverpool game?
AH: Sure.
JB: We’re going to end the interview on a wager.
AH: By the time the interview’s published, we’ll have a result.
JB: Exactly. Maybe we’ll do an editor’s note. (Editor’s note: Arsenal won the match, 4-1.)
AH: If Arsenal win, it’s an all expenses paid trip to Santa Fe. On me.
JB: OK. It’s on the record. Thanks again for doing the interview, and I hope all is well in NYC.
Musician Jack Antonoff

April 13, 2015

In Cuba, Personal Projects Begin to Simmer

From the very first time photographer Ellen Silverman visited Cuba, she was in love. She joined a Santa Fe Photographic Workshops Cuba Cultural Exchange program in December 2010, and recounts, “We arrived at night, under a cloak of darkness. In the morning, I awoke to a world of sound, rhythm and visually rich textures, colors, and movement. It was all very exciting.” She remembers the experience fondly, saying, “Visually, it’s so stimulating. I loved the people that I met, the photographers I was meeting, everything.”

Jumping at the opportunity to visit Cuba on one of The Workshops’ licensed cultural exchanges fulfilled not only Ellen’s a long-standing desire to experience Cuban culture, but also awoke in her a passion that became the basis for three different personal projects: A photographic series called Cuban Kitchens, a cookbook titled The Cuban Table, and a recent master’s thesis video project called My Roots Lie Here.

Ellen’s first Cuba-inspired project, Cuban Kitchens, was created on her second journey to the small island nation. “When I went back the second time I wanted to have more purpose,” she explains, “so I self-assigned this kitchen series.” The series was well-received and led to a show, and then to her first cookbook collaboration, The Cuban Table.

“I thought it would be amazing to do a cookbook,” she says, adding, “I didn’t want it to be just a collection of recipes. I wanted to include the history, influences and culture of the food—the personal stories.” She partnered with Cuban-American food blogger Ana Sofia Pelaez, and the two set to work. Using connections made during her trips with The Workshops, Ellen and Ana Sofia joined forces with Carlos Otero, a local Cuban photographer who works with The Workshops. The trio traveled from one end of Cuba to the other, knocking on people’s doors, visiting restaurants, and collecting recipes from home chefs and professionals. “People were happy to let us in,” Ellen recalls, “We got access to their homes and were able to talk with them,” adding, “People wanted to share themselves and their stories and talk with me.”

They kept their travel plans loose, which allowed for a satisfying degree of spontaneity and luck. Ellen remembers one instance where they saw a man on the side of the road making pan de mais cake, and they stopped to photograph him. They ended up talking at length about recipes, food, and life. “I loved meeting all the people, the whole experience was a treat and a joyful exploration.”

These personal projects are a refreshing change of pace for Ellen, who spends the bulk of her photographic life doing commercial work. “For years I’d been looking for a project like this,” she says, “It’s a collaboration of two people who are passionate about their art,” Ellen says.

That passion really shows. When asked what the most difficult part of the project was, she earnestly replies, “Laying out the book! There were so many images that didn’t make it in. Creating the images was not challenging, but choosing what to include, that was hard.” When asked to choose a favorite recipe, she’s similarly torn: “I love the flan recipe, the pastel de pollo, oh, there are so many good ones!” she exclaims enthusiastically, “I like the el pecado, that’s a drink, and the nadilla noche, or the lechon asado…there really are a lot of good recipes.”

It would seem the public agrees: the book is currently the #1 Latin American cookbook on, it was included on both Tasting Table’s and The Chicago Tribune’s seasonal Top Ten Cookbook lists, and it has been featured in The New York Times and The Miami Herald. Check it out for yourself—The Cuban Table is available for purchase here.

Experience the magic of Cuba for yourself: Join Ellen and Santa Fe Workshops for At Home in Havana, this November 3-11.

“I appreciate the lucidity of The Cuban Table. . . Ellen Silverman adds cohesion to this story of losses and gains with soulful pictures that capture the restraint and dignity of the Cuban kitchen and table and the enduring beauty of an island where the weathered and imperfect are not just what is left of the past, but the only present.”

March 31, 2015

Urban Exodus: Behind the Lens with Alissa Morris-Hessler

For more than a year, Alissa Morris-Hessler has been photographing creative people who left behind an urban existence and moved to the country in Urban Exodus. She also documents creative urbanites who opted to stay in the city, but brought the best parts of country living to their urban environment. She initially started the project after moving from Seattle to a tiny town on the coast of Maine. At first, she could count the number of young people in her town on one hand, two years later, as she says, "I am way past fingers and toes." She hopes to inspire people with these stories about reconnecting to the land. 

When not working on Urban Exodus, Alissa runs a boutique creative agency, photography studio and co-teaches landscape photography workshops around the U.S. with her husband Jacob Bond Hessler. We're thrilled to have her joining us in Santa Fe this summer with The Contemporary Landscape, July 26-31.

Here, in a self-interview, she shares photographs from the project, along with a little about her background and her own Urban Exodus:

What inspired you to move to the country? 
I met my boyfriend (now husband) literally the day he signed the closing papers on the farmhouse in Maine that we now call home. I met him at a bar during an art magazine launch party in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I was living in Seattle, working for the smartphone giant, HTC, running their global product launches. I came to NYC that week to launch a new phone and BONUS! I also met my soulmate. Five months of long distance was all I could handle. In late February of 2011, I packed up my life and moved across the country to Maine. It is worth mentioning that I had never been to Maine before meeting my husband and moved there after only four visits. I have always been bold, but it was a really big leap of faith. 

Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later? At first the worst part was leaving my friends, successful career and family (I have 5 siblings and all of them live on the West Coast). The challenges that came later were seemingly endless. Losing my sense of self, as I soon realized I measured my worth and value by my career accomplishments. Finding any sort of gainful employment. Owning and maintaining an old farmhouse. Adjusting to the East Coast/New Englander cultural norms - the East and West Coast are really very different. Having to YouTube and Google everything from pruning trees to patching plaster walls to natural black fly repellent. Not being able to walk anywhere. Feeling like I was missing all of the social, intellectual and cultural deliciousness that Seattle had to offer.  What surprised you most about country living? Did it meet your expectations? I was surprised at how foreign living in the country felt to me, even though I technically grew up in the country (the redwood forests of Northern California). I was alarmed at how interested everyone in town was with the new young people, there was no anonymity, I literally had five people come up and say that they knew me from seeing photos of me on my mother-in-law's Facebook. Several years in though, it has surprised me how comfortable I feel here now. I love spending quiet afternoons weeding the vegetable garden or mowing the lawn. I love swimming in the lake by our house and taking our little boat out on the ocean to explore the many islands off the coast. I love silently gliding through the woods on cross country skis in the winter. Although the winter is still a little too cold, dark, snowy and long for this California girl, I do love the contrast of the changing seasons. 

What were the hardest things to get used to? What do you miss the most about the city?
Hardest...I would have to say is the very LONG winter. It is about 6 months of trees without leaves or color. The last few months of "winter" (ie: April/early May) can feel very depressing. The things I miss most about living in a city are walking everywhere, great museums, watching live music, ethnic cuisine and my friends I left behind. 

Would you ever go back to an urban existence? 
I would love to somehow figure out how to do a couple of months in warmer urban environments every winter but honestly I don't think I would want to move back to a city full time. Three days in NYC is about all I can handle now; before the noise, filth and intensity starts to wear on me. 

What do you appreciate the most about life in the country? 
The space one has to create and be creative, both physically and mentally.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving out of the city? 
1. Get your ducks in a row. I wish I would've considered my career options before leaving the city. The people I have met who were able to keep their city jobs and work remotely are living the dream. It is difficult to make city wages in the country unless you go that route. It is difficult to secure a remote position after you have already moved to the country, as all of your former colleagues/friends will think you are just drinking lemonade and taking long walks in the woods now and aren't as capable or available as you were in the city.

2. The country isn't cheap. If you are moving to a place that is cold in the winter, heating bills can be outrageous.

3. My last piece of advice is really get to know the community you are considering. No two small towns are the same and it is important to put together a list of what is important to you in a small town (ie: restaurants, cultural offerings, schools, etc.) Also, think about your needs now and into the future. My needs when I first moved to Maine in my late twenties feel different from my needs now in my early thirties. 

When you go back to visit the city, what are the first three things on your to-do list? 
1. Visit friends

2. Eat at all my favorite restaurants

3. Walk everywhere/visit museums/watch live music

Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
I love connecting with people and inspiring others to create more. People are my main source of inspiration but nature, specifically the ocean, is a close second. I also owe a lot of my creative development and confidence to my husband. I studied photography and art when I was younger but because my professional career had me managing photographers, designers, etc. I lost my confidence in my own artistic abilities. His support, enthusiasm and love has helped me find my voice again. 

Have you noticed a change in yourself and/or your work since moving away from the city? 
I have chilled out a lot. I have always been a work-horse and very type-A. The country has taught me that good things take time - from cooking to growing your own food to starting a business. In the city it was easy to do things quickly and see immediate results. I am finally appreciating the journey just as much as the end result. 

Walk us through a typical day in your country existence? How does it compare to the day to day in the city?
My husband wakes me up with coffee in bed (yes, I am totally spoiled). I spend the morning answering emails and working on projects. I usually go to the gym in the middle of the day to avoid the rush. Depending on the time of year, we try to do something outside before it gets dark. In the winter it is cross country skiing or snowshoeing. In the summer it is swimming in the lake, gardening, kayaking or adventuring in our boat. In the Spring it is usually yardwork, gardening or hiking. In the Fall it is hiking, foraging for mushrooms and raking leaves. Our days in the country aren't typical and that is what I love about them and hate about them. In the city I was in the office by 8am and left around 6pm. When I came home, I could usually leave work at the door. In the country I really have to stop myself from working all the time (looking at the clock, it is 9pm while I answer these questions). 

Are there things that you are able to do here that you wouldn’t have dared to try before moving from the city?
I would've never started Urban Exodus or built my own business had I stayed in Seattle. I always managed creative people for work and didn't have the time, energy or drive to invest in my own creative pursuits outside of work. My second winter in Maine I decided that every morning I would draw for one hour before starting work. That exercise improved my artistic abilities drastically and now I feel confident calling myself an "artist," which I never would have associated myself with prior to moving. 

Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel inspired? 
In the summer I could sit in my vegetable garden all day. It is filled with butterflies and the occasional hummingbird. I also love our home and creative studio. We renovated an old 1877 barn on our property and that is where we run our business and photography workshops now. It is a light-filled magic place with so much space to work on lots of projects all at once. 

What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities? 
People often think that living in the country is easy. It is actually a lot of hard (but rewarding) work. Living in a small community can be amazing if it is the right community for you. I landed in a wonderful community and feel very lucky to be here but had I landed somewhere else it could have been a very different story. 

What are your future plans/goals for the coming year? 
I would love to turn Urban Exodus into a coffee table book so people can live with these beautiful stories and images in their own home. My husband and I are also going to continue teaching photography, this July we are teaching at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. We are also planning on growing our family sometime in the near future. There is never a dull moment here in the country.

To see more photographs from Urban Exodus, visit Alissa Morris-Hessler's website,