How I Got The Shot
This photo, “How Rain Works,” that I shot in December, 2016 is among one of my most well-known images. It was taken at a critical time in my life, giving it (at least for me), an important context that I can’t fully separate from it, when I look at it.
The photograph recently took top honors in the Black and White Spider Awards, winning Outstanding Achievement in Fine Art among professionals.
I graduated college with a Fine Arts degree. I had always planned on being a fine artist — corporate life never appealed to me, but even more, corporate people never appealed to me. To a college kid with creative yearnings, this cutthroat lifestyle seemed both mean and meaningless. I had better plans, I was going to be broke and happy. Those plans were thwarted by an opportunity to use my talents in commercial art. Like many before me, I jumped at the opportunity to see what a stable life might feel like. I promised myself I would return one day, and I even gave myself a deadline. But by the time I took the picture above, from the tall office building (and career) I was still working in, I was almost nine years past that promise.
In 2016, I was Executive Creative Director at an international marketing firm — work I’d been doing for over two decades by that point. We had only just moved into a new building in Century City.
The world of corporate creativity has its benefits — for example, I had designed a secret lounge behind a bookcase in the lobby. It was a magnificent place to retreat and concept. From a window somewhere about 7 floors up in this photo, it also sported a nice view of the street below. In fact, in the foreground, you can actually see a bit of the street markings that would become one of the defining elements of the “How Rain Works” photo. The arrows direct traffic to parking lots on either side. Century City is not much more than business buildings and parking lots.
It was in this secret room, where I would often retreat to think or focus, that I started staring down at the street below and first noticed the interesting angle it provided and how people played against it. I started bringing my camera to work and photographing it when the light was nice or if I just needed a diversion. Looking down and taking photos was a kind of fishing expedition I would take in the middle of the day.
April 30, 2008
Going back a bit — I can remember when the day came. The day I had told myself to cut ties with the commercial art industry and head back into a life of fine art. It was my birthday; April 30th, 2008. So much had changed, though. I had a career now, kids. Rather than a big disruptive leap, I simply decided to try to manage both careers simultaneously. I bought a Leica rangefinder camera and, after almost 20 years away from it, re-dedicated myself to making art again.
What proceeded from here was an epic journey (for me) of shooting, exploring themes, having shows and tackling it like I was a student of the medium again. It’s what I imagine it’s like for people who try to earn an advanced degree while working. You can manage both, but it comes at a cost and plays on you, mentally, emotionally, physically and psychically.
In retrospect, I think it’s less complicated than it felt during those off years. I have come to believe — now having completed the journey back to fine art — that it is just incredibly hard, if not impossible for some, to be an artist while also being a full-time and dedicated careerist. It’s like the proverbial asymptote, that ever inches toward its goal in half-measures, but never quite touches it.
December 21, 2016
Forward almost nine years. It was a rainy day, which was a big deal — Los Angeles had been going through a terrible drought. Rain was a welcome relief. With only a few days before a the winter holiday break, it was slow in the office. Work always had me traveling a ton, so I wouldn’t normally travel during holidays — I’d be the one to stick around while others took off. So, here I was, days before X-Mas, fishing out the secret window, watching the rain, and thinking about my yearly resolution to do something ambitiously creative. One year, I set out to make an album. Another, a novel. This year, I wanted to make significant strides as a fine artist, though I was not sure at the time what that even entailed.
As I contemplated this (or maybe because I was contemplating this), I stared down at the street as I had previously, but something looked different. The clouds and sparkling light seemed to set the street markings aglow. I suddenly really saw them, in a way I hadn’t before. They seemed to have a special quality, to be reaching out to me, just asking to be turned into a metaphor or symbol of some kind.
And then someone ran across the street. Then another and another. I began to notice the relationship that each person had with the markings — especially the arrows — and how it changed depending on their actions and position.
I was particularly intrigued by the idea that these relationships were something that could only be seen from my vantage point. And I think that’s partly what makes the shot interesting. As an observer, we are making a narrative that the person in the photo is a player in, but unaware of. This puts us, the audience, in the role of author/observer — above them, seeing things that they can’t.
I think this is common among fine art themes — to offer a viewer something beyond the literal. A set of symbols to perhaps either find meaning or peer into another’s process. That I found that form of elevation seven floors up in an office building seemed to have its own poetry to it, even if at first I was just playing around with forms.
It wasn’t until the action started to happen in the lower part of the image that all the pieces seemed to come together. Though, as a photographer in this kind of haphazard form of creating, you don’t always immediately know what you’ve done. It can feel good, even hopeful, but this kind of work is far more subconscious and ever-evolving than the kind that takes form in the head first, and then gets translated through the craft.
The pictures were taken in portrait composition with a prime lens at 84mm (56mm on a cropped sensor camera). The aperture was wide open, at f/1.2, as it was a dark day, shooting through a tinted office window. The shutter was 1000th of a second. ISO 400. Immediately after taking the four shots I knew I had something interesting. Not all shots have that kind of immediacy, but I think the very good ones do. I think you sort of know. However, I did take another shot in that same session, a bit further up the street, and I think I may even have been even happier about that one.
This image has a more design-oriented composition and feel and was taken on that same day. I like to look at it even now as a reference point for this moment in time, caught between commercial art and fine art sensibilities. For me, while shot similarly, they represent completely different approaches and ideas.
It’s two years past the time I took these shots. A lot has transpired in that time. Nearly ten years (to the day) after my deadline, I’m finally fully back to being an artist again. It came at a cost — the difficulties of the transition came pouring down and washed away a lot of structures and routines that I had become accustomed to. But at the same time, it has also forced me out of a creative drought, spawning new ideas and opportunities for growth.
I guess that’s how rain works.