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The Road To NASA

The 550 foot deep Barringer Meteor Crater in northern Arizona was created approximately 50,000 years ago. The topographical terrain of Meteor Crater so closely resembles that of the moon, NASA made it an official training site for the Apollo astronauts.

The 550 foot deep Barringer Meteor Crater in northern Arizona was created approximately 50,000 years ago. The topographical terrain of Meteor Crater so closely resembles that of the moon, NASA made it an official training site for the Apollo astronauts.

The road is long and wide, an open valley surrounded by rolling green hills and lush low hanging clouds. It’s virtually silent, save for the steady hum of the car engine and a gentle tapping of a light rain on the windshield. Off in the distance, peculiar forms suddenly emerge from the horizon and slowly begin to take shape on our approach – 27 radio antennas neatly aligned. We’ve arrived at the Very Large Array in central New Mexico, the same unassuming, remote network of telescopes which the late astronomer Carl Sagan describes as “some strange species of mechanical flowers” in his famed novel Contact. Indeed, they stand silent and unified, “straining toward the sky.”

At the very lowest point in what could be considered the most difficult year of my professional life, my dream job showed up in a random Google search. Twenty-four hours later I sent off my application, and within a month I found myself on the road to Houston to work at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Leaving our home in San Francisco, my girlfriend and I packed up our lives and set off on a 2000-mile road trip halfway across the country.

Despite the absolute minimum of planning, we seemed to find ourselves in cities that made notable contributions to astronomy and space exploration. Ultimately, what began as a normal road trip to relocate turned out to be something of a cosmic pilgrimage. We visited both the Lowell Observatory and the Barringer Meteor Crater in Arizona, as well as the Very Large Array in New Mexico. Every stop and every mile we traveled away from California seemed to further confirm the fact that we had leapt into an entirely new adventure. I found myself standing in some of the very same places Carl Sagan once stood during the filming of the show Cosmos, and I couldn’t help but reflect on my own Personal Voyage and the circumstances that may have helped lead me here.

The Very Large Array (VLA) consists of 27 radio antennas in central New Mexico. Each antenna is 82 feet in diameter, and together they form a powerful telescope with an eye 22 miles across.

Growing up in Florida, NASA had a huge influence on my childhood. I remember waking up to the sound of the space shuttle breaking the sound barrier upon re-entry, and my mind and imagination filling with possibilities. It led me to join the Navy as a Mass Communication Specialist, earn my degree in Visual Journalism from Brooks Institute, and work as a staff photo editor and photographer for WIRED.

It seemed like an impossible dream, but I believe both the real and proverbial road to NASA appeared because I’ve always been willing to follow my own interests and pursue my enthusiasms whole-heartedly. My first few years as a young photographer were spent obsessed with learning good technique and understanding photography as a craft, but the best moment came for me when photography taught me how to love other things – that’s photojournalism – a vehicle of exploration unto itself, a master key capable of opening any door, taking me anywhere I’d want to go, and teaching me anything I’d want to learn.

Deciding what it is we want to shoot is a big question for photographers in all stages of our careers, especially early on. There’s a lot of pressure to specialize in order to stand out among our peers, but this doesn’t have to be the dilemma that many make of it. Rather than ask yourself what you want to shoot, the better question would be: what do you enjoy the most?

Social media such as Instagram and Facebook are great reflections of what we love and how we spend our time. Professional portfolios are no different. Want different photos? Change your lifestyle. Better yet – live the life you want to live and bring a camera. Even when I couldn’t contribute to human space flight directly, I still immersed myself in that world. I absorbed as many sci-fi books, TV shows, and video games as possible. I read everything I could get my hands on and really lived in that internal space, and I wasn’t shy about it. I even spent a month making a space suit costume for the WIRED Halloween costume contest (and won).

The historic Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff AZ is home to a 120-year-old 24-inch refracting telescope. Percival Lowell initially used the telescope to further his legendary theories about intelligent life on Mars, and later generations used it to make a number of other discoveries, including detailed maps of the moon for the Apollo missions.

The historic Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff AZ is home to a 120-year-old 24-inch refracting telescope. Percival Lowell initially used the telescope to further his legendary theories about intelligent life on Mars, and later generations used it to make a number of other discoveries, including detailed maps of the moon for the Apollo missions.

The second thing I’ve done throughout my career is pre-visualize. You've probably heard of this technique before, made popular by the legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams. He claimed that he would imagine, or "see" the image he wanted to create in his mind before he would go out to shoot, and that by doing so, he primed his senses to capture the moment if and when it finally presented itself. In other words, he knew what to look for, and he was prepared. This same concept can apply to all of life.

Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.
— Carl Sagan

Science-fiction is well known to serve as a precursor to science fact. Watch any episode of Star Trek and you'll see tablet computers, cell phones, universal translators, and a host of other modern technologies depicted long before Steve Jobs became a household name. Having a clear vision gives us something to work toward and focus on, and increases the chance of it coming to fruition. In my experience, it often feels as if there's a more subtle aspect of nature at work, a connection between our imagination, our thoughts, and our reality, woven together in ways we can’t yet quantify.

One of my early inspirations for the space suit was the image at left from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The following image was shot nearly a full month later on Halloween night. No efforts were made to mirror this scene, it came about naturally. In hindsight, seeing them side-by-side really speaks to the power of pre-visualization in any project. Photos from left: MGM, Heidi Lavelle

One of my early inspirations for the space suit was the image at left from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The following image was shot nearly a full month later on Halloween night. No efforts were made to mirror this scene, it came about naturally. In hindsight, seeing them side-by-side really speaks to the power of pre-visualization in any project. Photos from left: MGM, Heidi Lavelle

At the beginning of this new voyage, I look back at the road that brought me here. Like a distant mountain, I kept the destination in sight without worrying too much about the path I'd take to get there. I sometimes cursed the potholes, but more often I marveled at the view along the way, and if I ever got lost, and there were times when I did, the mountain would always be there, patiently waiting for the moment when I was ready to lift my sights once again.    

When I think of NASA, I see an ideal that represents equality, courage, exploration, and better still – a code of ethics and responsibility. Around the world, NASA has become emblematic of human ingenuity, our boldness, our need and desire to move and to know, and to learn, and to see all there is to see. And by our risk and daring an instant acknowledgment of the inherent mystery and absurd beauty of nature – in all of its profound diversity. The observation of these two concepts has been the center of my moral principle for years. It underpins my creativity, it shapes my perspective, and it guides me time and again, personally and professionally, to brave the darkness in search of light. 

All in all, do whatever it is you love to do, and do it constantly and with love. Embrace failure, have courage, and have fun.

Wish me luck,

WIRED Product Photography

During my time at WIRED, my official job title was Associate Photo Editor, but I really occupied two roles. My primary responsibility was to help curate the website. That meant working with writers and editing within Wordpress directly to effectively art posts prior to publishing. I also assisted in editing and maintaining the section front pages. My second and somewhat unofficial title was staff photographer, the goal of which was to try and bring magazine quality photography to the web on tight deadlines and with far fewer resources than print.

By far, product photography made up the bulk of my assignments, so I can think of no better way to return to blogging after three years than to share a few thoughts I've picked up along the way.

The iMac with Retina 5K display. Oct 22, 2014.

The iMac with Retina 5K display. Oct 22, 2014.

My background has always been journalistic in nature, so studio lighting and still life were somewhat foreign territories for me when I started. I collaborated with other editors often, but occasionally had to work solo, meaning the responsibility of scheduling shoots, placing the lights, choosing a backdrop color, and styling the product would fall on my creativity alone. The good news is it forced me to discover new ways to approach these challenges on a daily basis.

On average, I’d say I shot 5-8 products a week for the web, sometimes as many as 20. Most of these products only needed a single photo to accompany them in the post or review, while others required several more detail shots in order to fill a gallery or slideshow. I eventually learned to ask myself a series of questions whenever a new product was presented to me: What angle most shows this object’s personality? What was this product designed for? What makes this product unique?

The trick wasn’t to view products simply as things, but as manifestations of human invention. Everything from the relief patterns on a fork to the heat shielding lining the space shuttle goes through a similar process of concept, design, and ultimate manufacture, so in a sense they have a quality of life to them – their existence tells a story. 

The February issue of WIRED featured a double-page promotional image for Design Life, a special edition magazine detailing all the year's best gadgets – my first print image for the brand. Art direction by Allie Fisher. Dec 12, 2013.

The February issue of WIRED featured a double-page promotional image for Design Life, a special edition magazine detailing all the year's best gadgets – my first print image for the brand. Art direction by Allie Fisher. Dec 12, 2013.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that the same logic that applies to journalism can and should be applied to product photography. In other words, whether you're working in the controlled environment of a studio or shooting in the field, context is crucial for sound judgement, and asking yourself the five W's: Who, What, Where, When, Why, (and how) will only help you further understand the subject you're photographing. 

If done well, the final image will do more than just illustrate – it will tell a parallel story of its own. The number of possible stories out there is endless, and it’s the story you’re shooting for that should ultimately inform the overall look and feel of the final image.

That story changes every day.

Cheers,

For nearly a year WIRED was undergoing a major office remodel, so I improvised studio space where I could. Aug 06, 2014.

For nearly a year WIRED was undergoing a major office remodel, so I improvised studio space where I could. Aug 06, 2014.

Spring Forward

Attendees try the new Macbook's keyboard during the Spring Forward Apple event at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center. Photo: Josh Valcarcel/WIRED

Attendees try the new Macbook's keyboard during the Spring Forward Apple event at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center. Photo: Josh Valcarcel/WIRED

Optical Birefringence

The following images were prepared by evaporating various chemical compounds onto slides, causing them to crystalize. Crystals interact with light totally differently depending on their molecular structure, and when viewed under a polarizing microscope, subtle details can be observed that would otherwise remain invisible under normal lighting conditions. Optical birefringence, or double refraction, refers to transparent materials that bend light more than once as the light passes through it. Similarly, the polarizing microscope is designed to filter the angles and frequencies of light variably, resulting in stunningly abstract and colorful images.

Special thanks to Blake Estes for preparing these slides himself. His scientific work is phenomenal.

Class: Scientific Photography / Scott Miles

Reverse Windows

Eight minutes before this image was made, these light rays emerged from the sun, where they traveled at light-speed through space, scattered off the surface of the Earth, and burst into my apartment. Notice how the blue light rays in the image above are on the bottom, and the green and brown rays are on top. This is literally the sky and the earth observable inside the light as it travels.

Commonly known as a camera obscura, i.e., a dark room, the view from outside my window is being projected onto the walls of my apartment – upside down – via a hole roughly the size of a dime. Ultimately what I’ve done here is transform my living room into a pin-hole camera large enough to walk around in. The principles of this physical process have been known to man since antiquity, and it is largely debated as to how many works of art throughout history this process may have aided.

Just like our eyes, light enters through the pupil (or aperture) and a tiny upside down image of the world outside is projected onto our retinas. Our brain naturally corrects for the inversion, and flips the image right side up in our minds. Cameras do the same thing, albiet electronically.

Class: History of Photography / Greg Voight

This image shows the light rays seamlessly reconstructing a “real” image in the reflection in the window glass on the left. It feels like you’re looking out a window, but in this case, the outside world is actually looking back at you. Like a prism, the reflected light enters at different wavelengths and frequencies according to what it’s it’s come in contact with. It’s important to note that this image and the image below have technically been flipped upside down in Photoshop to allow the viewer to see the light in a more natural orientation. The image below also demonstrates how a multi-disc diffusion panel can act like a screen when placed in front of the pin-hole, creating an image viewable from either side.

Q & A with Jesse Groves

On art, creativity, and value

Jesse is a photographer and Gallery Curator living in Southern California who believes that photography is a wonderful dialogue of intentions. As a photographer Jesse has completed work for Carpinteria Magazine, Chumash Magazine, Hillary Duff Clothing, JDK Design, NPR, Orange County Register, Santa Barbara New-Press, and Terry Bicycles. As a curator Jesse has mounted over 100 exhibitions including exhibits for Nick Brandt, Keith Carter, Jonas Jungblut, Luceo Images, Terrance Reimer, Todd Roeth, and many student and group exhibitions for Brooks Institute.

I’ve had the pleasure in my time at Brooks to share some really great talks with Jesse. Not only is he a brilliant curator/editor, he is always quick to deliver thoughtful, articulate insights into the human experience. If you ask me, the best way to make a portrait of a man like Jesse isn’t necessarily with a camera, but through the medium of conversation. He spoke with me about his experiences as a working artist, the influences that have helped shape his point of view, and the challenges of overcoming self-doubts.

Click here to read the full interview

Jon Lake

Jon and I started Brooks together nearly three years ago, and I made my initial attempt at this portrait during our first few weeks of school. The image ended up having some issues with the lighting and general image quality, so I considered it a near-miss. Naturally, I’ve wanted to reshoot it ever since, and I finally got my chance a few weeks ago when I received an environmental portrait assignment.

Jon has an amazing personal history deeply rooted in LA’s graffiti culture, and it offered me a chance to really have some fun with the lighting. Graffiti is subversive by its very nature, so I gelled one of the strobes red, the other blue, and spot-lit the wall with a 1/4 speed grid. The idea was to light the entire scene in a way that makes the viewer feel as though the police had just arrived.

Be sure to check out Jon’s Instagram @ohyaword, and special thanks to Kelton Woodburn for all the help.

Class: Advanced Lighting / Paul Meyer

Tamara Estes

I’ve wanted to set up a shoot with my good friend Tami for almost a year now. She has a lot of experience working as a nude art model for painters and life drawing classes, but this was her first time posing for the sole purpose of photography. Likewise, nudes are far outside my usual range of experience, so I’m honored to have had the opportunity to work with her and try something new together.

A major component of this assignment was to use continuous light sources instead of flashes, which in this case were two Kinoflos and a Mole Richardson hot-light. They took some getting used to, but the lights worked exceptionally well, and produced some of the most beautiful light I’ve ever seen. Sincere thanks to Jesse Coble Studios for letting me use his awesome new office-studio, and of course, special thanks to Tami for being every bit a much a part of this shoot as myself.

Class: Advanced Lighting / Paul Meyer

The Law of Reflection

Light science, and the challenge of visualizing it, will be the overarching theme I explore throughout the semester. These images are intended to illustrate the physics of how light travels. Light rays typically travel in straight lines from their source, and interact with objects differently depending on their density and texture. When light encounters a rough surface, it scatters or refracts. When light bounces off a smooth or shiny surface, it reflects at the same angle at which it arrives. Lasers are highly concentrated beams of electromagnetic radiation. By shining a single laser beam onto 11 carefully positioned mirrors, that same beam will reliably reflect at 11 equivalent angles, reemphasizing the predictability of the phenomenon known as The Law of Reflection.

For this experiment I used a Galileo series laser in conjunction with a tripod mount, 11 kicker mirrors, and a Rosco fog machine. Special thanks to Ryan Buller for all the help.

Class: Stop-action Photography / Scott Miles.

Moriah Quinn

Moriah Quinn was kind enough to model for me during a classic head a shoulders portrait assignment.

Class: Advanced Lighting / Paul Meyer