I first chose the name Real Florida Photo as the domain name for my website and as an alias for social media to represent my photography. In no time, the name stuck and permeated my life in the real world as well. At a New Years Eve party, a friend introduced my wife and me to some of her friends saying, "...this is Jennifer and Real Florida Photo." It's true. Whenever I have an issue regarding photography, I discuss it with Real Florida Photo. It is the Superman to my Clark Kent. From here on out, these blog entries will be about all things photography so, I thought to pass the torch, I would perform a self interview.
A narrative device that always works so well.
But then, I read the article 21 Signs You're a Cocky Photographer over on the PetaPixel web site and thought maybe a self interview was going too far. So, instead, I took out the questions from Morgan Lee to Real Florida Photo, and am just telling my story. This time, from a photography perspective. To tone it down a notch, I merely titled this entry the double entendre, Self Portrait.
Oh yeah. That's perfect.
Early as I can remember, my first camera was a Polaroid Instamatic. A few years ago, I would have had to explain what that is. Now instant film is all the rage again.
...you have just blown $1 of your allowance money.
Even back then, that film was crazy expensive. Especially for a ten year old kid.
But I was a kid. Star Wars, the very first one ever, had just come out and my friends and I would have fake sword fights with flashlights and I would photograph that or my toy space ships on a very dark blue blanket on the bed. When the film developed I would draw laser streaks on them with magic markers to make the flashlights look like light sabers and the spaceships to look like they were shooting laser cannons at each other. I want to say I showed early promise as a fine art photographer, but, that's what I did with my first camera.
My first "real" camera was the Honeywell Pentax Spotmatic.
When I was little, my grandparents traveled all over the world. That's the camera my grandfather took with him to document all those adventures. From safari in Africa to the Taj Mahal and the pyramids of Egypt. That camera in its brown leather bag meant adventure to me. He gave it to me my senior year in college to use to build my theater set construction portfolio telling me it would get me started and I could upgrade to a "more modern" camera later. I didn't realize it at the time, but, with the necessity of having to get pictures of sets and using it in day to day life, that's the camera that really taught me the basics of photography. I never had any reason to get rid of it.
Honestly, I was never a great photographer using it. But it being stolen did start Real Florida Photo. We were moving and our apartment was robbed before we had moved all of our stuff out of it. It was proven to be an inside job so the apartment complex gave us a nice chunk of change for the camera and a bunch of CDs that were taken. I took some of that money and got the latest greatest digital camera at the time; the Sony Mavica MVC-CD 500.
A five megapixel wonder that contained a mini-CD burner to record the pictures right in the camera.
That is the camera I really cut loose on. A good portion of that was family photos. My family being my wife and, typically lots of rescued dogs and cats. But I started photographing our new home town of Mount Dora. I made photograph cards for family and friends. I photographed our town to show off to my grandfather in California via e mail. a few of those photographs transcended the times and are still on Real Florida Photo today including the Mount Dora Lighthouse at Dusk.
Mount Dora Lighthouse at DuskTaken in very low light. A big influence on my artwork is the oil paintings of the old masters from the past few centuries. One look they do beautifully that I love is the sun setting or rising in the background with the foreground lit just right so details can be made out bathed in the low light of the sun on the horizon. It's not easy to do in one capture in photography without the foreground becoming just a dark silouhette. A lot of photographers make this work to a point with HDR, which is overlapping several photographs of the exact same capture and then they're laid one over the other in post processing so the light is evened out. I just generally don't care for the look of HDR. But when I can get it to work in one exposure, I love it.
My favorite photograph I ever took with the Mavica, though, is Entering Lake Harris From the Dead River.
Real Florida photo did not exist quite yet. But the Mavica was definitely when photography transitioned over to self expression and depicting the world around me with an artistic aspect. Real Florida photo actually began when I photographed an old florida rose stand. More specifically a small building built to resemble an orange.
Me taking an intimate portrait of an Old Florida Rose Stand
I was trying to come up with an identity that would be inclusive enough for me to grow as a photographer but definitive enough to define my style. We had recently moved from Orlando. Not the nice part. The inner city part where helicopters flew over the apartment complex every night with spotlights swooshing back and forth, a lot of gunfire in the background and K-9 units regularly chasing armed suspects through the back yard. On top of that, my day job was (and still is) working in the themed entertainment industry. Living almost 40 miles north of Orlando, in rural Florida, gave me a whole new outlook on Florida I had never considered before. I wanted to know it better. I saw easily dedicating the rest of my life to solely depicting in photographs the unique history and culture of this one-of-a-kind state.
And I made a tagline...
Early Business CardFrom the back of my business card when I was RealFloridaPhoto.net instead of .com I photographed anything I could think of.
The Old Spanish Sugar Mill DeLeon Springs State Park Historic buildings.
Old Florida Farmhouse Sentimental looks back at Florida's past.
Dock on Lake Dora Even holiday events.
Rainstorm on the 4th of July Parade
Anything to try to catch the nature of this diverse state. From wildlife...
Heron in Tall GrassHeron in Tall Grass Taken, once again, at my favorite spot between Palm Island and Grantham point along the shore of Lake Dora. This Great Heron is not at all shy and, I would swear, is the same Great Heron I have been photographing for the past four years. He's a great subject and seems to love to have his picture taken. ~Morgan ...to the wilderness herself.
Florida: The Land That Time Forgot It was the proverbial learning to play the violin in public as I went along. I switched back and forth between digital and film. Tweeted and, later, posted everything I did on FaceBook. Massaged the Real Florida Photo website. I never really developed a style. None that I could discern anyway.
A few hits turned into a couple thousand hits. My wife teasingly called me a "hit whore" because I would check social media constantly to find out how many people had viewed my photographs. I would later learn this has little to do with success as a photographer. I was also clumsy and inconsistent with my social media outlets.
Then, one weekend, I made a day trip to the small almost non-existent town of Weeki Wachee. Sat in a chair in a theatre carved into the very earth facing an enormous glass wall that gave an underwater view of a natural spring, and took a series of photographs that, to this day, is a record breaker for Real Florida Photo.
A series of photographs that would be viewed worldwide by hundreds of thousands of people.
So began my foray into the fine arts world and trying to figure out exactly what I was doing anyway. Hear of all of my embarrassing mistakes with gallery shows, exhibitions, and self book publishing next week, right here, on Real Florida Photo.
Following my graduation from college, I had no idea who I was, where I was going, or what I was doing.
One trait I had developed, especially my senior year of school, was being a rebel without a clue. Hated authority. My faculty advisor told me at my exit interview he did not see me as a Technical Director but very happy as a master carpenter or shop foreman someday. I immediately launched a nationwide job search exclusively for a Technical Director position.
My love/hate relationship with the performing arts had begun. I took a Technical Director position with the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble. Founded by former students of acting guru Alvina Krause, the premise of the troupe was that theater should permeate the American landscape. The lofty goal that farmers should be discussing Shakespeare. To help launch this arts revolution, approximately a dozen actors acquired an art deco style theatre in Norman Rockwellesque Bloomsburg PA. cleaned it, renovated it, and transformed it into a proscenium arch theater.
Being part of that was exciting.
The money sucked.
It was my introduction to the harsh reality of showbiz: The fun creative stuff does not pay enough to finance a running car. Nor does it keep the Guaranteed Student Loan people at bay. As for a roof over your head, hope you like roommates! If you pursue money in theatre, say Broadway's latest smash hit Hamilton, your part in that enormous machine is so small, your specific role is no different than, say, fulfilling the same role on the crew of Broadway disaster Spider Man. You are not part of a creative process, you are a small cog in a big machine.
Working on engineering and constructing a brick wall for a dynamic smash-hit like Hamilton,
is exactly the same as creating a brick wall for a blight on Broadway's history like Spider Man.
Many of my classmates got this during school, really liked their vocations, and are doing incredibly well. I was in it for a love of the art form and, more specifically, the quality of the two hour experience being created for the audience. Like so many recent graduates of college, I was disillusioned and burned out in less than a year at my chosen profession. I did not yet realize I was an artist.
At the close of the first season at my first professional Technical Director job, my girlfriend at the time had a sister in LaPorte Indiana who was having a baby. When she asked me to move there with her for the adventure of living in a different state and trying different things...sure! Why not? The creditors were closing in and changing my address seemed a sound financial move.
It was at this point I realized that all the helpful advice, with a generous dose of guilt, I had gotten from family and friends my entire life, was complete and utter bullsh*t. Mainly the society-perpetuated myth that getting a college degree is the best thing to do as soon as you graduate high school.
Me putting tens of thousands of dollars worth of education to good use.User comments
Thanks for the great advice everybody!
In Indiana I learned that the job skills I had acquired in college translated in the real world to a diversified trade school. Metalworking, woodworking, plastics, drafting, engineering, color and design all at 101 beginner level caliber. I scrambled to figure out how to pay rent with this less than specialized skill set.
I started by calling Kelly temp agency. They started me out at American Rubber making rubber parts for automobiles. I was the only guy in that department. The crew was the toughest group of women I have ever seen. It was a whole factory floor of Ellen Ripleys from Alien.
My memory of my co-workers at American Rubber
And so the job hopping began. Wanting to try more of a trade instead of factory production work, I went to a plant called Kingsley Furniture to build solid wood French Provincial couches and chairs.
For those unfamiliar with furniture styles, French Provincial is very fancy and elaborate.
Think woodworking for Liberace or President Donald Trump.
Kingsley furniture was having financial problems. I could not afford to miss a day of the week, much less a paycheck, so I went to The House of Fara.
Putting together little pieces of solid wood moulding at my own
perfectionist pace. Why I left this job that paid for a house rental in
the country and had good benefits? Young? Reckless? I got nothing.
At first, I was in charge of the 'Block Shop' where I supervised a small factory of, roughly, a dozen employees. I was not ambitious (my interpretation='mean') enough to manage that crew. So, I was given my own warehouse, one assistant, and all the materials and equipment I wanted to make solid wood displays to show off how wonderful the House of Fara line of moulding and casework product were. Meanwhile, in a rented house by a little flowing river, out in the woods of Indiana, I sporadically continued my work on the fantasy fiction epic I had begun writing my senior year in college instead of going to class, Alga Mor.
The Crystal Ball of Alga Mor concept artPrince of the Shoal Artwork by K.C. Solano
Because I would much rather spend time with the imaginary race of underwater
elves I was creating than going to some boring class about theater management.
It was my first experience being some semblance of an adult.
I was "poor" when I started out in LaPorte. Meaning, one paycheck away from disaster. My 1984 little red Ford Escort broke down while I was driving somewhere across nowhere Indiana. I should have been terrified. Not only did I have no way of repairing the car, it was before the time of cell phones. It was me alone in an ocean of corn stalks swaying in the breeze for miles in every direction. I was pretty screwed, but it was amazing. It would later inspire what I wanted to create as an artist.
The people of Indiana are very nice. I was rescued by a farmer in a pickup truck. My confused life went on.
One night my girlfriend announced she was not in love with me any more. Vacation to real life over, it was back to theatre! I have no good explanation for this decision.
I was Technical Director for a small summer stock company called the Chautauqua Theatre Company, had nothing lined up for the winter so I worked on the assembly line at a company in nearby Jamestown called American Locker.
To this day, I could still knock out about 10 of these units in half an hour.
Did part of another summer at Chautauqua Theatre Company after another winter at American Locker, and got serious with my search for a 'grown up' theatre job and career. I ended up at the Delaware Theatre Company where I met Jennifer.
Just another throwaway theatre romance...that has lasted two decades so far...
The Delaware Theatre Company is where I peaked as Technical Director. I had an amazing crew, a just as amazing supervisor, and was working in a fantastic facility. It was a 'lorte "B" theatre' which, for me, meant just far enough away from Broadway to avoid the corporate bulls**t, but close enough to work with the best designers and performers in the theatre world. Being a chain smoker, I maintained my office as the only smoking area in the entire building. That meant famous actors hung out in there between scenes telling old theater stories and great dirty jokes.
You Can't Take it With YouStarring Louie Zorich and Directed by Apollo Dukakis, established names and rising stars were commonly found working on Delaware Theatre Companie's productions.
You Can't Take it With You
Delaware Theatre Company
Why am I not still there? The rest of the story.
To both organize a large amount of information that goes in to building any set, and to be able to be in the scene shop and a production meeting at the same time, I would draft elaborate working drawings from the designer's artistic renderings of the set. They were explicit instructions on how I wanted everything built. So detailed, it was as if I was there myself.
Blue Line Detail of Renfield's CellJCC Uncommoners Dracula
This was before the days Computer Aided Design (CAD) was affordable for, well, anyone outside of NASA or major architecture firms. I did it all with mechanical pencils, a drafting table, and quick shop math in my head. I was an awesome draftsman. Not by any innate talent, but by sheer force of will and doing it on average for eight hours a day. A technical director needs to do a complete other job on top of drafting. (S)he needs to attend rehearsals, meetings, and make sure the entire technical production staff has the materials, tools and information necessary to perform their jobs and serve as liaison between the artistic and technical, plus, manage financial, aspects of a theatre production.
Open ChargeAn original play produced by the Delaware Theater Company for the first time. That meant starting my day by having blue lines made of the previous night's draftings, arrive at the shop about 9:30 to hand out new information to the staff, work in my office and go to meetings all day, watch tech rehearsals in the evening, and go back to the apartment to draft more until two to three in the morning. It was not a "hard" job per-se. It was a lot of fun and I had a great staff and the support of upper management and, indirectly, the theatre board. I also instituted opening night shop parties for the entire cast and crew. Plus, there were lots of parties and a great social life with amazing guest artists and the theater staff. But it's all I did. When I got engaged to the Wardrobe Master at the company. I had only one thought.
Engagement Announcement PhotoMe and my wife, Jennifer thought it would be pretty to have our engagement picture taken outside in our favorite park. Delaware winters are cold.
It's f****ng cold out here
God! There has got to be something more to life. There just has to be.
Artwork by Ed NolanA going away gift from one of my great crew who often did black and white caricatures of the staff depicting biting commentary and inside jokes of our personalities. This, of course, depicts me and Jennifer charging into our new Florida life.
Jennifer received an offer to work on an ice skating show at Busch Gardens in Florida. I was assured by Busch Garden's recruitment team that there was lots of theatre in Florida. They lied. So, after a couple of months of doing everything from digging ditches, cleaning warehouses, and putting together office furniture working through various temp agencies, I did the only thing I was really qualified at to make a living in rural Tampa. So began my two year career of being a stage technician for Busch Garden's Hollywood Live on Ice!
Ice skaters are crazy. It was a blast with an incredibly funny group of people. It was also eight hours a day and I didn't make very much money. But I did begin to seriously write. I had two story ideas going. Including Crystal Ball of Alga Mor. Another one featured Florida and was an urban fiction thing. But, really, I was flailing on borrowed time. Living paycheck to paycheck with no clear life goals or plans and my credit rating going down by the week. After two years, we left Tampa for Orlando. I thought I might be happy creating imaginary worlds with complete immersion. I wanted to build sets for theme parks.
If your children meet Buzz Lightyear at Walt Disney World, look behind you.
That spaceship? I helped build it.
I can not share my photographs of my work life for theme parks. Confidentiality agreements are strict. But if you have been to Universal Studios Florida, or Walt Disney World, you have seen my work. Fiberglass, wood, plastic, metal. I've done a little bit of everything.
Rocket Ship for a Corporate ShowI have done a lot of "creative building" over the years. In this instance, I was handed a large length of sonotube, a big block of white foam, and told to build a rocket ship in the carpentry shop.
Constructing a Rocket Ship for Corporate Theatre
I also found a lot of work in corporate theatre and the convention industry. It was a tug of war for a long time. The convention industry is a lot of money with the best materials and meticulous craftsmanship. Theme park work is not always as steady but it is building the "cool, fun, creative" stuff.
The International Builder's Show Entrance UnitThis production lasts less than a week, but costs more to produce than most American mid-size corporations make in a year.
$$$ Pure Money $$$
This "day job" part of the story has a happy ending. I currently work for a scenic company that does both the fine craftsmanship elements for the big theme parks in Orlando and around the world, along with set elements for television spots. Not a lot of highbrow stuff, but these people are a lot of fun and keep my energy up. A certain British television crew I worked with recently was awesome.
But what I really wanted to do with my life, was be a genuine artist. My opportunity came when a friend from where it all began, when he played Captain Hook in the very first theater production I had ever worked on, called me up and asked if I would be interested in being the guest designer for his first production at his new job as Director for the JCC Uncommoners all the way back in my childhood home town. Working with Bob Schlick is always an awesome proposition anyway. The only thing that could make it better, was the show he wanted to do.
DraculaDesigned by yours truly for the Jcc Uncommoners
Dracula was a huge project.
Dracula Ground PlanA ground Plan is an aerial view of the set. This one illustrates the movement of various set pieces to transform the set from a full stage castle to Renfield's padded cell to Mina Harker's bedroom...and the list goes on.
With a total of 18 scene changes including a full stage castle, It was ambitious to do onstage without resorting to minimalism. But, my love of everything fantasy and medieval had me going overboard. I wanted to build a full size castle.
JCC's DraculaOne solution, like this "safe" hospital room scene for the heroine, was to have the castle always be an ominous presence in the background and architectural elements in the foreground reflecting it. The white unit also makes a kind of Batman face.
I have never had more fun working in theatre. I unleashed my creativity on the velum. Blue lined it, and shipped it off to Upstate New York where the students began building it.
Iron Torches Drafting DetailTo be made out of wood and painted like wrought iron, each one held a tiki torch canister so that they could be practical (actually work) during the show with real fire. Completed TorchBuilt, Painted and ready to light! I was supposed to go up there to inspire the students and volunteers.
Milling the Window FrameA JCC Uncommoner But, the truth is, they inspired me. Renfield Paints a Tomb in Faux Marble Their work and enthusiasm energized me.
Rock Goop SaturdayThat's a lot of rocks that needed to be faux finished on that set. We held what I dubbed "Rock Goop Saturday" Posted posters around campus and mixed plastic garbage pails full of gray goop that volunteers plastered all over the set. Reminded me why I do what I do.
Dracula Lurks in the Window in Wolf Form
The results were awesome.
In the spring, we did Jesus Christ Superstar with similar success.
Jesus Christ SuperstarWe did a contemporary version of the show with Israel and Rome being sort of industrial.
I wanted an industrial looking set with the Priest's area being elevated on the right to represent the church, the cross as a sort of radio tower in the background in the center, and government represented as sort of the bottom of the pyramid found on a $1 bill. The symbolism driven home when Pontius Pilate's red flags were lowered with the famous "eye" above the pyramid sitting centered over the platform. Heady stuff. I loved creating and loved the energy.
Pontius PilateI think I worked as hard making those flags as I did on the rest of the set.
It was a dream gig. Jamestown Community College put me up in the Sheldon House as a guest artist. It is a mansion in Jamestown NY donated to the college by, I believe, the granddaughter of a famous inventor for Kodak Film. The curator of the house took great care of me and made amazing coffee. So I lived in a mansion and created with great people. A dream come true. Except, I still had a day job waiting for me back in Florida. I would work all day and draft all night in Florida to help get construction going, then show up a week or two before opening to help finish up the set and rehearse the scenic elements for the show.
Judas Singing his Heart OutThe backdrop behind the white scrim upstage is actually an easter egg I put in the design. It is, loosely, the Orlando skyline.
When we did the third show together, I got sick. I was working 14 hour days at my day job in Orlando, and then still had to get together information after work to move production of the show forward in Upstate New York. By the time I arrived, I was fall-dead ill and didn't do my job like I should have. I never closed the gap enough to make the leap into designing full time.
Looking back, it's just as well. For one, I don't know if I ever wanted to be a set designer so much as I just wanted the experience of designing Dracula and Jesus Christ Superstar. Plus, not all directors are as fun to work with and creative as Bob Schlick. And not all theatre as uncompromising in quality or as dynamic as we were allowed to be at Jamestown Community College.
Eventually I found another passion.
Welcome to MegaConDelirium welcomes you, to MegaCon 2012
When my wife and I lived in 'the hood' in Orlando, there was a Coliseum of Comics just a few blocks away. The first X-Men movie came out, we started shopping there, got subscriptions, and were hooked. The idea occurred to me that, maybe, my ongoing pet project The Crystal Ball of Alga Mor was not a novel after all. Maybe it was a series of graphic novels. Maybe it was a monthly series of comic books.
Alga Mor MapThis map of Alga Mor continued to develop over the course of years. The Corel Draw file it became is long gone. But this world was so real to me, I pretty much have it memorized anyway. First I tried drawing myself. How hard could the transition be? I spent years drafting, set painting, a lot of elements it takes to create artwork.
Skeleton tied to a Ship's MastDetail from one of my design plates for J.C.C.'s Dracula.
As it turns out, pretty hard. Drawing something and having it be recognizable is one thing. Transitioning that to 22 pages of good looking art a month for an epic fantasy, that's something else altogether.
While searching for an artist, I embarked on researching how to best produce a story by meeting and talking to people at one of my favorite events: MegaCon.
At the PostOrlando MegaCon 2010Saturday, April 24thCool Kids First off, I love MegaCon. I wish I had gone as a teenager. It would have changed my life both as an artist, and a person. The creativity and work people put in to how they will dress at the event alone is amazing.
MegaCon BorgMegaton 2012
I like that it is for all ages.
Very Young ZoroMegaCon 2012 And, exciting for me, all the names in Comic Book Publishing were there and open to new talent.
Set in a sort of alternate history "mythic" Russia, it had innovative artwork that was a combination of Gosset's own hand drawn work scanned and then colored and enhanced using Photoshop.
When I approached the Red Star table the finance manager cheerfully told me Gossett was not available at the moment but would be back to talk with me shortly. I said, "actually I would like to talk to you." He seemed a bit taken aback. I doubt many people at a comic book convention want to talk to the money and accounting end of the comic book creation process. What followed was an extensive e mail correspondence and him introducing me to all the big names that could get my book published, and on comic book and bookstore shelves. It was so exciting.
Meanwhile, I wrote in earnest. I learned quickly that what my story had lacked all those years was narrative drive: Events that move the story forward. You can't have that when you are writing comic books. You shouldn't have that when writing a novel either. But there are plenty of FF books that have come and gone that could have stood some serious narrative drive. Anyway, when I began transcribing my story to a comic book script, the story took off at a rocket's pace.
Concept for Crystal Ball of Alga Mor CoverArtwork by KC Solano
As for the artwork itself, I went through several different artists on the premise that we would be like a rock band. Collaborating on the whole thing, sharing the royalties once it began to sell.
Shifara Character StudyThe Chrystal Ball of Alga Mor Artwork by KC Solano I learned the hard way you can't produce comic books like that.
Slaad The Crystal Ball of Alga Mor Artwork by KC solano
At least I couldn't.
Hall of Kings artwork by KC SolanoI wanted the entrance hall to the King of all Alga Mor to be unimaginably enormous and impressive. Starting with it being lined on either side by statues of former kings who, one of their big toes would be "as big as a draft horse.
And so, I had all but sold a series I could not produce. I was done with collaborative art. I wanted to do something on my own. I also, after decades of creating either in a dark theatre or staring into a computer screen wanted to do something that depicted and embraced the real world. At least, my interpretation of it.
That is why I chose photography.
But that is a story for next Sunday. Right here, at Real Florida Photo.
...Shuffling your memories dealing your doodles in margins
Anyone can take a picture. I think famous photography collector Michael Wilson put it best when he said:
"Thousands of commercial photographers and a hundred times as many amateurs were producing millions of photographs annually. The decline in the quality of professional work and the deluge of snapshots resulted in a world awash with technically good but aesthetically indifferent photographs."
He was not talking about cell phones. He wasn't even talking about the era of one hour labs and instant film. He was referring to the year 1888 when the Kodak 1 was introduced to the world with the catchy slogan, "You press the button, we do the rest."
Selfie Stick not included
Suddenly, voila! For the past one hundred and twenty nine years, anyone can take a picture.
So why photography? For starters I suppose I need to share some history. Not the history of art as a whole, not even the history of photography as an art form.
For now, I wanted to share my history: The story of how, after exploring so many others with varying degrees of success, I choose photography as my one means of artistic expression.
To start, a whirlwind tour of what brought me to this point...
I won't over-share on the trials and tribulations of my less than idyllic youth except to say I grew up in a fading industrial town in Upstate New York where it was gray most of the year and there was lots of snow, poverty, and a dysfunctional home life.
That's me! Precious little snowflake # 26,598,263 from the left.
I was a shy, introverted young adult without a lot going on. My life was working my newspaper route, lots and lots of reading fantasy fiction, waiting for the next Star Wars movie to come out, Atari, and later MTV. I was Narcissus staring at my own imagination with no creative outlet until one day I saw a game in a bookstore that made me want to create like nothing had before.
Dungeons & Dragons is a game where a player, called the Dungeon Master, would create a thoroughly detailed fantasy world and the other players of the game, through colorful geometric dice and an elaborate system of rules, would adventure their way through it. I cringe even now to read that title Dungeon Master because this was back before Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies, Harry Potter, or comic book conventions when being a nerd was NOT considered cool at all or, for that matter, even remotely desirable.
But DUDE! There was even a monthly magazine about all things D&D! How cool is that?
I was instantly hooked to the point where I liked creating these imaginary worlds and characters on reams of graph paper even more than I liked playing the game. Careers for Dungeon Masters were scarce, though. Being completely lost in my own imagination would not get me through life, or so I thought. Plus, awkward as I felt around them, I liked people and wanted to connect with the world. High School graduation was bearing down like a freight train. I needed a plan.
When I was 16 years old I knew exactly what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be when I grew up: Don Johnson's depiction of Sonny Crocket on Miami Vice.
Mostly the part where he lives on a sail boat in a harbor in Miami, wears really cool clothes,
and broods a lot with a totally awesome soundtrack scoring his entire angst-riddled life.
I came to the conclusion so many people who travel through their own dreams and imaginary worlds more than real life came to: I should be a writer. I signed up for the English elective creative writing and, alas, it was full. So, I did the next most creative thing on the list and signed up for the English elective Drama. I don't remember the moment I chose that instead, but it defined my life, at least, my "day job", ever since.
The year: 1985 Me on the left, makeup artist extraordinaire Eric America on the right giving a demonstration of special effects makeup for Jamestown High School's drama class. Excuse the coffee ring. Photographs get their wear and tear after traveling to a dozen different states over three decades.
Part of the requirement for passing Drama class was to volunteer eight hours of my time at the local community theatre. My first memory of theatre is slop paint. Slop paint is the five gallon plastic bucket where all the paint colors, carefully chosen by set designers, go to die once the show has closed. Nothing else in the world smells like it. It is the underlying backstage smell of every theatre I have ever worked in. Paints from previous productions get mixed into this 'slop bucket' which inevitably turns sh*t brown and is used to base-coat the next set. My first day showing up backstage at Jamestown Little Theatre, that's what I did. Covered all the walls, and myself, in dull brown paint. Then I was offered some stew for dinner with the theatre staff and some of the performers. There was a small kitchenette offstage with a crockpot always simmering with stew for the volunteers. Sitting in that dark backstage was cozy. What struck me the most, was that I was not breaking bread with a random assembly of volunteers. It was sitting down with family. A family with a warmth and acceptance I had never experienced anywhere else.
Me and the Lullaby League
Me on the far left buried in the Lullaby League and other cast
members for The Wizard of Oz at Jamestown Little Theatre
I had gone in to fulfill my volunteer commitment of eight hours. I ended up staying for four years.
The set transformed from my dull brown base paint to a cozy children's bedroom in London. I don't remember the second show I have worked on, or the hundredth. But I vividly remember the first, Peter Pan.
My most vivid memory is seeing the scene change for the first time. With the hiss of the fog machines and raising of the lights, a mundane children's bedroom transformed into a magical forest with exotic beasts. Never Never Land. It was then it occurred to me: People actually do this for a living!
I dreamed of doing other things, but for the next four years, I lived backstage at either the community theatre, or the theatre at Jamestown Community College.
Bye Bye BirdieThe black and white photographs were actually projected on a giant screen as the orchestra played the overture. The big goofy grin (bottom)was the final shot as the screen raised and the show began. Always got a laugh.
That's me rockin' the gold lame', leather jacket and hair as Conrad Birdie
Though I did a couple of acting bits, mostly type-casting playing the likes of Conrad Birdie, my real love was being back stage. It was building sets right after school, then staying late into the night for rehearsals. Then lots of hanging out in bars and going to people's houses for parties.
The lifestyle did not lead to academic excellence. I was a good test-taker so I kind of got by but, really, did not have any options by the time I had graduated from the local community college. So, I put all of my eggs into one basket, applied to one college, and was accepted into their design and production program.
Sh*t got real.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Life turned from parties and daydreaming backstage to an intensive program of woodworking, metalworking and welding, color and design, textiles and lots of really intense mathematics for engineering.
Beaux Arts BallNorth Carolina School of the Arts 1991
But, let's be honest: High stress arts school with brilliant artists and artisans looking to blow off steam? The parties kicked ass!
Decades later and I still don't know how I feel about having attended The North Carolina School of the Arts. Dickens' classic novel opening, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" comes to mind. The year previous to my attending that school, Psychology Today had published a study listing the most stressful colleges in the country. NCSA was listed as #2 right behind Harvard Law.
On the VergeMy first gig as Technical Director in my Junior year.
Set for On the Verge
Made out of vinyl tubing. The same clear tubing connected to your arm when you receive an IV in the hospital
I had no idea what I was doing there. What began as learning new things quickly turned into surviving the program. I could go on. There's a lot of BS in any institution and NCSA was no exception. I self medicated a lot with booze and cigarettes. I maxed out at three packs a day.
On the other hand, I was surrounded by brilliance and I loved it.
On the Verge
The set in action. An awesome play about three victorian women traveling through time.
There were visual arts students drawing and painting at all hours of the night in the studios. There were amazing musicians practicing on the commons lawn. Beautiful dancers and aspiring actors. And, of course, the stage techs aspiring to be professional lighting designers, sound engineers, prop makers and set designers. So, it was amazing and made me neurotic all at once.
Romance LanguagesNCSA My first production senior year as Technical Director.
I will say this for the program. When I got out, I was good. Eager to hang out with "normal" people again, little to no desire to continue with theater, tens of thousands of dollars in debt with guaranteed student loans, and not nearly as good as I thought I was, but I was good. I suppose in the end the program did what it was meant to do. Now out to the real world.
Romance LanguagesNCSA What does being burned out and turned off by theater and, really, art in general have to do with becoming a fine art photographer? Find out next Sunday right here at Real Florida Photo.
King LearStage Preset NCSA
Under the crinoline tu-tus, bright costumes and silk shoes, ballet is grueling. It is years of practicing. Around age four is a good time to start.
Ballet is high energy. Ballet is passionate. It is dedicating your life for those two hours of rapture performing. Hundreds of hours of rehearsal go into creating that artistic vision of gravity defying grace and beauty. Dancers push themselves beyond human endurance practicing over and over for months so, when the colored lights come up on stage, they pour out their passion, hoping to take the audience with them to new heights of emotion.
Getting to that point is exhausting, aggravating and emotionally devastating. There is also a euphoria that comes from striving so hard and reaching so high. A feeling of family amongst those who take that journey together, and a lot of laughter and fun to counteract the stress and frustration.
When I first considered how to present the process of all the work and dedication that went into producing a professional ballet production through pictures, I thought of what photography style and medium would best capture that power with an intimacy that brought the viewer in to the story. I pored over the work of famous photographers throughout history to try to learn how to capture that kind of energy.
After fruitless searches through different pretty and polished dance photographs, I found the style I was looking for in, of all places, old Rolling Stone magazines. Particularly the high energy rock and roll photogrpaphy of the sixties and seventies. From The Beatles to Woodstock, Led Zeppelin and the Who. The most engaging photographs to me were not the polished publicity photographs, but photographs of rock icons slumped over smoking a cigarette after a long night in the studio, goofing off during sound check, hanging out backstage, or even bored waiting for their flight at the airport while on world tour.
The two things the best rock and roll photographs had in common was that they were from this era when rock and roll began to take shape, and they were all on film. There was blur from the era before autofocus, there was big grain in the photographs, and there was a gritty raw feel that made me feel like I was there.
It is that vigor that I have tried to capture in this visual documentary. It is all shot on 135 film with manual focus cameras that are decades older than the dancers they were used to photograph.
I was aggravated one night later in the process of photographing this project when the 'real' photographers showed up with their expensive digital cameras and yard-long zoom lenses and basically shoved me out of the way to get their production stills. I texted my wife venting my frustration.
She texted back, "Relax. Get the shot from a more interesting angle. Remember, you're shooting little rock stars."
That is what this book is about.
Morgan H. Lee