Tag Archives: John Earle

Wish I’d Shot That


photo found on the wall in providence rhode Island

Coming out of the theater in Providence; I ran smack into this very, very large photo. I don’t know who shot it or why; but I definitely had one of those “wish I’d shot that” feelings. When that happens, there is a simple acknowledgement that someone has done something that I admire; but, then, there is that petty little “I could have done that” partnered with the jealous “I want that”. When I am done stuffing all those  reactions back in to their little black box; I can get back to simple appreciation and wonder at how directly a photograph can describe a profound humanity with an intensity afforded by no other medium.

This is not a simple picture. The soft, cool palette; the order and abstraction of the composition; the relaxed elegance of the hands all combine to create a significant whole.  I want to believe that this man was in this place, at this time, of his own accord; and that this is a record of that beautiful and sublime moment where art and history collide. I may have it all wrong; this could be a totally manufactured event. Photography has become more and more suspect as its cinematic nature has been exploited (aka Gregory Crewsdon at the extreme). Still, there is hope as only a photograph can engender, that this just happened and the photographer just happened to be there.

Photography has always been for me, first and foremost, about the record; a means of communicating wonder, shock, and awe. The more it gets fiddled with the more abstract that basic tenet becomes, not necessarily at the expense of ideas and art, but, I think, at the expense of something that only a photograph can provide … simple truth. I was reminded of a couple of artists that seem to consistently create these kinds of images, Eve Arnold (l) and Dawoud Bey (r).



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Back in Action

It all started when my wife Marni saw this property online.


It had been on the market for awhile; a wonderful white elephant … 2 1/2 acres; beautful old barn, classic 1782 farm house, the signature towering maple, ancient apple trees; an overgrown meadow in Boxborough, MA. Long story short: we bought it and renovated it.

The Oliver Taylor House has, over the last 4 months, been transformed into a Montessori Children’s House; age 3 to 6. It was, and is, a huge project; transformative really. Call it a sabbatical for me.


Call it a dream come true for Marni. Bringing her vison to life has been amazing.  Last week we completed phase one; the renovation of the first floor into a classroom for young children. Welcome to the Taylor School.


IMG_8164-2 IMG_8163 IMG_8160-2


What was in it for me you might ask?  Many things: a psychic vacation; hard, physical work that I love doing; working with Marni to create something of lasting value in the world; but the barn workshop would have been enough.

John's Barn workshop

Now … back to Photography.




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Fishing Trumps Photography … oops!

Nate … sweet cast

So here is the scene … two old (92 and 84) friends … a pristene river … beautiful, rambunctious trout … spring hatches … it was a movie aching to be made … perhaps “A River RanThrough it”. What did I do? You got it. I fished … and enjoyed the camaradie of fine men. There aren’t a lot of things that get between me and the picture. Family is one, without apology. Fishing, I found, was the other. It was a fine time that I couldn’t bring myself to intrude upon with a myopic artistic energy. Oh,  but the ones that got away … really.

Fishing with Friends

Dave & Bryant … Fish on


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The Venerable Headshot

The head shot has been around for a very long time … they just took a little longer back then. Bear with me here … I was an art history major. I am occasionally asked to produce these portraits for my clients, usually for their website “about” pages. (used to be for the back pages of annual reports). These are fairly simple endeavors with well prescribed parameters: head and shoulders, nice light, eyes to the camera, visual consistency, and not a lot of time .

What is interesting to me is that these relatively straightforward assignments demand, during the interaction, the same attention as a more highly produced work (See my post The Essential Portrait). As long as I am being pretentious it  is a short leap to the idea of the headshot as the  haiku of portraiture … a simple vehicle to a simple truth.  One usually manages to get a lot of nice shots, but I find there are only a few that sing. Below are some examples of recent work. See more of my executive portraits at my website … here.


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The Essential Portrait

All portraiture, to me, involves a certain mutual philanthropy.The core experience is the often powerful interaction between the sitter and the photographer. The camera becomes an instrument of confusion. Even before the first exposure, the photographer is empowered and the sitter revealed. The reveal, sometimes given without the knowledge of the sitter, is a gift. Reciprocity comes with the trust and respect the photographer brings to the interaction. I find this experience in the simplest headshot, and most vividly in the interaction with people unaccustomed to this sort of attention. I find it least in the celebrity portrait where the interaction is so managed that nothing is revealed except the brand. My benchmark and aspiration is the photographer Paul Strand. So much of what we do is about artifice …  Often we are selling even when there is nothing to sell. Strand always brings me back to the reason and the rule … simplify … dignify … tell the truth.

Images by Paul Strand



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Winners and Losers

Along with all the amazing possibilities in the digital realm  have come the wires and constant “checking”. What is lost is the need for a certain kind of concentration; of previsualization; a certain way of being in a given photographic moment. I am not sure one takes better pictures one way or the other; but I don’t get the same feeling of immersion shooting digitally. I said to a friend recently that when I shoot pixels my pictures go to the computer and when I shoot film they go straight to my heart. There is a certain analogy here with an electric guitar and an acoustic guitar; or perhaps my Honda Pilot and my old (and long gone) ’46 Willys. There is something tactile and accessible about the latter. Put your ear to the soundbox of an acoustic and play a full chord; open up the hood of the Willy’s and pull the carburetor; listen to the sound of a Hasselblad going about its business …

John Earle, photographer, milton glaser, selling outsomething lost … something gained.

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The three components to a portrait are subject, light, and context; with the light sometimes doing double duty. In my world, the conditions of portraiture are often predetermined. There is the “you have 5 minutes” portrait which is often accompanied by the “pre ordained context”. There are the “contrived portraits” which speak to a technique or brand; but not really to a personality. There are portraits where the context presented is immediate and appropriate … call it the “there is a God” portrait. 
Every once in a while a more thoughtful opportunity presents itself. The author, Stephanie Reents, came to me sight unseen. The studio had been prepared for any eventuality. I invited her for lunch and a chat before shooting, enabling me to explore the psychological landscape and the back story. We talked about her book, her life, and her history. The story was Idaho meets New York; a straightforward, big-sky personality informed by a sophisticated New York patina. As noted in my previous post, I am predisposed to a certain approach and palette. The decisions, predicated on our conversation, were subtle but deliberate.

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Close to Home

Mom … in context of Dad

On the same note as the previous post (Past and Present) but in the extreme, photographing family in any other than a candid context has  always been a challenge for me. I call it the “photographing your mother syndrome”.  I tackled the problem  a few years ago with some success, but without the clarity of purpose I know to bring to it now. More recently, my wife Marni requested portraits of our two youngest for her birthday. I will always go for a candid, authentic feel; but I wanted a more formal result,  so I grabbed them off the beach, took them into the studio and shot with window light. They were amazing subjects, took direction beautifully, and seemed to enjoy the attention … which all came as a surprise to me … having expected a good deal of late afternoon pushback. My son Harry, age 11, mentioned that I was talking to them in an unfamiliar way … and I realized my professional self had taken over, I had gone into “the zone”. It is not a persona I want to bring to these relationships with any frequency … but it was interesting, to me anyway,  how clear the distinction had become.

Harry & Margaret

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Keeping it Simple … Getting it Right

I am always happier when the idea quotient is higher than the production quotient. Production, to me. is a way to get back to simple. Simple is being in the  right place,  in the right light, with the right crew. Photographing author Bill Landay for Random House was just such an occasion. There wasn’t any art direction, but I gleaned from conversations with the creative director in NY and the author, that we needed  a spectrum of shots, from gritty crime writer (sexy, worldly) , ex lawyer (subject cred), and granular context (this book, these characters). I scouted some with the author, and scoped out  a couple of places I knew might work on my own. We then set up a schedule around the light. All places would have worked under any conditions, but sunny was best. Two great assistants (driver and grip) kept the guerilla nature of the event going smoothly; and we cruised through the whole adventure in 4 hours. Three wardrobe changes, 4 locations;  finishing just when the sun dropped behind the trees. Happy author …  Happy client (there sure are a lot of shots!) … Happy photographer …  Fun.

William Landay Author

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See my Stories Portfolio

My first digital shoot was in 1998. It was portraits for Fidelity to be used in a completely illustrated environment. We’ve come a long way since then. I still shoot film for personal projects; never commercially. The digital environment has brought us immediacy, spontaneity, flexibility, and the ability to take risks with a buffer of certainty. It has also afforded us  the potential for a new level of authenticity and, paradoxically, the possibility of  infinite manipulation … strange bedfellows indeed. Where I used to need lots of gear, I can now go into an environment quietly and in the background to tell a story. This method takes me back to my roots as a photographer (think Tri-X  .. the iconic high speed black & white film). It is nice to be back. To fill the gaping maw of websites, I often go into an environment with a couple of cameras to observe and record. This is pure visual storytelling and an effective way to build an authentic library of images for an organization.

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