Looking Through Another Eye

I first started getting into photography when I was in Graduate School. I had gone home for Christmas break, during which I had bought myself my first digital camera. It was 1.3 Mega-pixels, (which at the time was a half-decent resolution) and I barely knew anything about it.

My only experience with taking photos was earlier failed attempts with a “regular” camera, using actual film. Rarely did those pictures even come out... at all. It was pretty frustrating to take a few rolls worth of pictures, send them in for developing, spending 5 bucks or more per roll, waiting a few days for developing, making a trip to the store to pick them up… only to find that just about all of them were too dark, too fuzzy… and totally incomprehensible. When I figured I’d be in events or situations that I wanted to take pictures, I bought a few disposable cameras, and hoped for the best.

So, I was pretty happy to get a digital. You can see right away how the pictures come out, and if they suck… you can instantly delete. Plus, they hold a LOT more than regular cameras, and no film to change. If I wanted a hard copy… you can even get prints of them at the store. (And eventually, even print them out myself) In the long run… they would be a lot cheaper… so, on a practical level alone, it seemed worth it.

Wanting to get my money’s worth, I carried it around a lot. Just threw it in my bag, and if a sudden Kodak moment showed up, I’d be ready… (even though it wasn’t a Kodak). People noticed I had it… and for some reason, everyone assumed I knew how to USE it. Not many people had digital cameras (it was still in its relative infancy in the market), and since I was in the Theatre Department… I got requests. Some of the directors doing the small tiny one-act plays were asking me if I could take pictures of their shows, so they could have them for their own portfolios. Or if the Film Majors needed a photographic prop for their film, they came to me. These were all people I liked, so naturally, I’m going to accommodate and help them however I can. So I found myself, several times, being the “show photographer”… sometimes even listed in the program as such. (I considered it an unnecessary credit… but they wanted to put me in there.) When I actually found myself taking archive photos of the large-scale, highly-funded official Department Musical… I looked at my tiny, low-end 1.3 Mega-pixel camera and thought, “How the hell did THIS happen?”

But everyone seemed to like the photos I took. Granted, I knew nothing about lighting, or shutter speed or anything that “real” photographers use to get the “perfect picture”… but hey, if the customer is happy, right? And it’s not like I didn’t learn anything. I did figure some things out… like the darker the room, the brighter the picture would end up being. (The shutter has to stay open longer to absorb the little available light… and usually absorbs too much, hence… brighter picture.) Plus, my camera did have a neat feature… panoramic pictures. Not *real* panoramic pictures… but rather it would take up to 5 photos and stitch them together, so you had to make sure you lined them up right from shot to shot. It was neat to take a picture of someone, have them move a few feet to the side, take another picture… and stitch them together so there’s two of the same person in the same picture.

Plus, once I got the pictures onto my computer, I could play with them even more. I guess the word would be “photoshopping”… but I never actually had Adobe Photoshop. Rather I had the really cheap program that came with the camera… but I got by nicely. My favorite thing was (and still is) to add captions or “word bubbles” above people… mainly to give myself a laugh (and I think occasionally other people find it so). That’s why I love the “candid shots” more then the “oh-there’s-a-camera-let’s-pose shots”. There are more possibilities with the split-second looks on people’s faces which can be drastically misinterpreted from the original context. (That cracks me up)

Once Grad School ended, I figured that was the end of my Photo career. I had no training, very little knowledge… and the camera is not the kind of Pro equipment one would need. Honestly… my heart was not broken. It was such a small part of my life… a minor hobby, really… that I barely thought of it.

Then, when I was living down in Los Angeles, I got involved in a weekly ongoing monologue show. The subject of all the monologues were sex and relationships… so it was considered an “adult-content-show” even though there was no nudity or anything like that. Now, all the actors were supposed to have their own poster… in a town full of actors, everyone wants to promote themselves… it made sense to have it like that. So after my first night of performing, the director mentioned that we needed our own posters, and she would call the photographer that did the last batch… and I noticed she didn’t seem too happy to pay the guy again for more pics. Well… I saw the last batch of posters… I didn’t think they were that great, frankly. Not to be elitist or judgmental… but for a show talking about sex, the posters weren’t very sexy.

I raised my hand. “You know… I have a digital camera. I know it’s not much, but if you’d like… I’ll take the pictures. No need to pay some guy for it.” I mean, this was a no-budget off-off-off-off-off-off-off-broadway theatre show… let’s pinch pennies where we can. I had no problem helping to promote a show I was a part of. (Call it a vested interest) She emphatically took me up on it. This way, I could make appointments with each person individually, take as much time as we want (so you’re not shuffling people one after another just to get the job done and over with in one sitting), I’ll put the text on at home on my computer… e-mail the finished product to the individual… they can print it out and make as many copies as they want… voila. Cheap show posters.

When I got together with each person… I gave each person the exact same spiel:

“Okay… just so you know: I’m NOT a professional photographer. I’m just ‘the guy with the camera.’ I have no interest in asking you to do anything you’re not comfortable with… frankly, I’m making this up as I go. So, if you have ANY ideas about what YOU want for YOUR poster… please, let me know. Cause I need the help.”

Everyone seemed to respond favorably to that. Some of the women that didn’t know me from Adam had brought along their large, karate-expert boyfriends because they didn’t want some “creep asking them to take their pants off”. They would later tell me that they thought I was a total sweetheart, and thanked me for being so respectful. Some even said they considered me more professional than most photographers they worked with. And everyone was happy with their posters.

(And yes, there is a poster of me… half-naked with a white sheet draped over my shoulder. One of the actresses took the picture for me. No, you can’t see it.)

No, I never asked them to take their pants off… though some did it anyway. (Only in L.A…) Since we only had to “imply” nudity under the sheet… that did give some leeway. Plus, when I looked at the “last batch” by the guy who got paid for it… they were all from the same level and angle. Almost like he just set up a tripod and lined people up, took one picture and moved onto the next.

I tried to give a little variety. I tried from lower angles, higher angles… tilting the camera a bit. Played around with them sitting or standing… anything but the same angle and level… all the while trying to leave room on the side for the titles and show info to go on. I didn’t want any words or info overlapping the actor… I figured that would be bad. They’re not the background of the picture… they ARE the picture.

After I took all the pictures, I went home, chose maybe 10 of what I thought were the best ones, e-mailed them to the performer, who would make the final decision. (Like I said… it was THEIR poster, so they should have that right.) Then I make the final poster, and when I saw them at the next show… I brought a burned CD with the finished poster and every picture I took of them. I know a lot of professional photographers actually claim legal “ownership” of the pictures they take… but what the hell was I gonna do with them? I think the subject of the photo has every right to know and control where that picture is seen. Sure, I kept copies for my archives… but they never have, nor ever will be released to be used by anyone else.

Like I said, people were happy with the photos and posters… which was a nice compliment for me, I thought. But I was getting bored… with the SAME corner inside of the SAME building, and everyone wearing the SAME white sheet. There’s only so much variety I can get with that situation. So, without telling the director… the next person that joined the show and needed a poster (it was a rotating cast… I was one of the few that was with it for so long)… said, “Yeah, I think I’m supposed to be wearing a sheet or something, right?” I replied… “*Actually*… I’d like to try something different…”

We got the hell away from that corner. I asked the performer to pick out a few of her/his own outfits… ones that they felt Sexy in. Not ones that other people said were sexy… but ones they FELT comfortable in and FELT Sexy in. (Big difference) Some women would come in black cocktail dresses, or a business-type outfit, or an artsy-kind of getup, or PJs, or even just jeans and a t-shirt. (Most of the guys came in jeans and a t-shirt… go figure.) But that’s what they felt sexy and comfortable in… (and I think “comfortable” is always sexier anyway). And some would come to my apartment, or I’d meet them elsewhere… anywhere but that damn blue corner. We tried different places, different outfits… different ideas. Now that we had more options… we came up with a lot more ideas for each shoot.

I quickly became very surprised at what I could get people to do when I had a camera. Having one guy stand in my shower, fully clothed, with water streaming all over him, soaking him and his clothes to the bone, and me snapping pictures… Again, I thought, “How the hell did THIS happen?”

And I really liked how the pictures came out. They looked sexier than the ones before… and they even had more clothing than the sheet. (Funny how that works, huh?) When the final picture was selected and the poster made up… it was shown to the director. Who loved it. Finally! I was away from the white sheet and that blue corner… and allowed to do whatever I want.

Plus, I started getting a little money. I started asking for about $5- $10 to help cover the cost of making the posters (really for the ink and paper from the computer)… everyone gave me at least that with no problem… quite a few actually gave me more. One women handed me $50… and when I told her I didn’t have change, she said, “I didn’t ask for change.” (That helped with groceries that week)

Wow… I was technically getting paid for making sexy pictures of people... with my low-end crappy 1.3 Mega-pixel camera. (As the technology got better and cheaper, the more adjectives I added to describe that thing.) Kick ass.

One night, after a show… a guy not much older than me had seen the show, and asked me, “Hey, who took the pictures of the posters that are outside?” (I signed them all… “Photo by Victor Riley”, adding to the history of not using my real name.) I told them, “Actually… it was me. The name on there is a pen name.” Then, this guy told me about a project he was doing… he had made an adult board game version of “Spin the Bottle”… with drinking rules and everything. He had a prototype, and needed some photos taken for the website and promotional stuff… he asked me if I was interested.

I had to tell him… “Uh… just so you know… I’m NOT a professional in the least. And the camera is NOT a high-quality camera. It’s just this little crappy thing that’s getting us by.” (I believe in letting people know exactly what they’re getting.)

He said, “Well, you bring your crappy little camera… and make some money.”

About 2 weeks later, I was in this guy’s apartment… with 2 attractive young women he hired for models… taking playful/suggestive/sexy pictures of them next to and playing with this adult-themed board game.

When the guy’s business partner was standing next to me, looking into the camera’s viewscreen with me… and whispering to himself, “Oh Baby…yes yes yes…” Admittedly, I was a little creeped out… and once again said to myself, “How the hell did THIS happen?”

Only in freaking L.A.

But apparently, I was good at making people look sexy. Even fully clothed. I think me doing all this with the other actors inspired my girlfriend-at-the-time to suggest that we “take some pictures” of our own. You’re not getting details… that’s a little *too* personal… but suffice to say , these were not going to be seen on any poster to advertise the show. I did make an effort to make them look more artistic rather than pornographic… and I thought we did that nicely. I even experimented with shadows and silhouettes… and suffice to say (again), we had fun. When we broke up… I looked at the CD we had the pictures on, the only copies of them, and gave them to her. I figured they were taken in a state of trust in our relationship. Now that it was over, the only way to honor that trust was if SHE had the only copies of the pictures. I don’t know if she realized I was giving her the sole copies… but that’s what I did.

(I did tell some friends later that I actually kept another copy of them… but I really didn’t. I said that to try and make myself feel better, like I still had some kind of advantage or something. Going further will get into a subject I don’t care to devote time to anymore. Anyway… yeah, I’m a lying liar who lies.)

I did actually get some requests from friends… ones who weren’t connected to that monologue show… “Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you… could you take some pictures like that of *me*?” (They were implying the “fully-clothed-sexy” ones of the show posters, not like the private ones that they didn’t know about.) I did mentally kick around ideas of some things I’d have liked to have done, picture-wise… but I never did get around to shooting photos for any of them. But it was a nice compliment that they thought I’d do good at making them look sexy.

When I got back to the East Coast… my brother gave me his old digital camera. It was only a few years old… is about 5 mega-pixels, has a great lens… and is a MUCH higher quality that my little 1.3. Looking at it… if I had THIS camera in L.A… I would have felt more confident about actually pursuing more paying options with it. At the time he got it (he won it from work), it was worth over $1,000. Nowadays, there are more powerful cameras that are cheaper… but it’s still a very nice camera.

Most of my pictures these days are of the “candid” variety… (because I love putting those word balloons in)… or more landscape-type pictures. I’m a sucker for good scenery. My new letterboxing hobby helps me with that. I take pictures of the different places I go and hikes I do, and put them in my logbook. It keeps me snapping pictures, and makes my logbook more interesting to look at.

That’s my photo career as it is today. Back to being a nice hobby rather than a pseudo part-time (not even “part”… more like “fraction-time and low-paying-but-interesting”) career.

But you know… while I’m usually behind the camera, rather than in front of it… that does me just fine. Because picture composition is pretty interesting to me… and whether I’m taking photos of models or scenery, I have fun with it. Who knows… maybe in the future, I’ll once again be put into a photographic situation where I’m saying:

“How the hell did THIS happen?”

Cause at the very least… it’ll be a lot of fun.


fritz said...

Neat! More backstory for the elusive Victor Riley =).

We just treated ourselves to a Canon Elph. Ultracompact, pocket sized little thing that has friggin' 8 megapixel capacity!!! And it was only $200! Super functional and cute (compared to our other one, AKA The Hubble).

Mom had the best time adding those commercially mass-produced thought bubbles to her film print pictures. Even better than taking photo moments out of context is (at least w/ her family) deliberately posing (with the butcher knife, screwdriver, hammer and...interesting expressions). Some of our best family pics happened that way.

V. Riley said...

You know... I'm not a fan of the tiny ultra compact ones. The 1.3 was the size of a regular commercial camera... and the one I have now is bigger than that (the lens is a big one).

I just like to having something in my hands with some size to it.

Yeah, I know: That's what she said.

What's kind of depressing (to me... and I neglected to include it in this post)... my new phone, the one I got in May (referenced in the post "Jerked and Re-Jerked")... has a 2 MegaPixel camera on it. That tiny little thing is a stronger camera than the one I used for years, and occasionally got PAID to use. Man... Few things can make you feel as weird/funny as technology.

That's what she said.

Phlewt said...

I've never seen any of your stuff there V. ;)
I remember the days of the 1.3 mp cameras. *sigh*.
Having worked in the film developing biz for many years, where you have your film developed can greatly effect how your photos turn out. Your averge drug/mega-low mart kinda store will pretty much butcher anything you bring in. If you have the choice of bringing your film to a smaller camera shop type place, do so. It's very much worth the extra $$$ you are going to pay.

fritz said...

It's fine that you're more comfortable with big equipment. We've done fine w/ our Hubble for 4 years now...but the one thing I can't do with it is take it out on my walks with the little one, b/c then I feel it's an open invitation to a theif (and when my arms are full of kid, there wouldn't be much I could do to deter theft). The ELPH is so small that I can hide it in my pocket and not feel like I'm carrying around a neon sign saying, "Rob me!" But I'm paranoid about stuff like that.

Agent Cake said...

I got into photography in high school. Actually took that class there. My sister was going to college for it and she was teaching me how to use her 35mm Pentax. I loved it! The world is different through a lense.
I def. prefer black and white to color, they tell more of a story than color, more to the imagination.
I now have a 10.1 mega pixel SLR camera that I finally figured out how to use. It took months to figure it out due to all the settings. I love being able to change out the lenses like a 35mm SLR.


V. Riley said...

Uh... what does SLR mean?

fritz said...


This is what our Hubble is. Got it b/c that's the only way to take pics through the telescopes we have.

If you want to know more, wait til Oct, and ask my techno geek...he'd be happy to educate you! =)

Agent Cake said...

Single Lens Reflex camera.

Anonymous said...

So how come i never see you with a camera? I'll bring my little camera on tues and show you some of my kids....Hmmmm...... Oh and more thing clothes are Def. more sexy....