doug menuez 2.0: go fast, don’t crash

May 22, 2009, 12:55 pm
Filed under: Field Notes & Essays | Tags: , ,


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I’ve been driving up and down 280 in Silicon Valley the past few weeks working hard to launch my new book and documentary film project from my work here in the 80’s and 90’s. More on that soon. Although it’s going amazingly well, it’s still really, really, really, really, really hard to get sponsors and funding for these kinds of projects. At the same time I’ve been updating my portfolio (with my amazing new agents at Stockland Martel) and preparing a new web site with LiveBooks new custom service, writing this blog, and beginning a new blog for LiveBooks on the business of photography (coming soon). I’ve also completed a rough cut on a short film I directed about immigrants in NYC and giving talks around the country while also working on ad campaigns, production and other projects.

What am I doing? Basically I’m starting over. The economy just makes it all harder but I’m putting myself in the same boat with any other photographer starting or redirecting their career. This is the same crazy pace that ten years ago led me to burn out completely so I can’t help but think about the message I’m sending in my essays and public talks. Damn, I hate having to follow my own advice. Of course I’m in a good position and having fun with this new phase, but the same principles apply. I have to keep honing my vision and get my work out there. I have to hustle as much as any young photographer starting out. That’s the way it is.

We had drinks last night with a young woman considering a career in photography and the issue of “paying your dues” came up. I told the story about the time we hired “a famous photographer’s” assistant who one day threw the negs he was filing back down on the light table and announced “I’m too good for this shit! I paid my dues!” And so forth. Well, sweet Jesus I was so glad for him. I sure wish I could say the same. Please don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.

There is no such thing as being paid in full in the dues department. If you believe that, chances are you are on a plateau, comfortable and resisting the increasingly obvious problems related to stasis in a creative live. You might be heading for hack-ville if as I believe we must challenge ourselves periodically to grow. By challenging yourself you are automatically making your life more complicated, stressful and taking risks. This is the requirement of excellence, of fulfilling your potential. It just goes with the territory….

I think it’s so interesting and consistent with my point that Chase Jarvis is writing about how he is pushing himself creatively to take risks; he’s shooting landscapes, portraits, every day life with his iPhone and probably next with his hotel room converted into a pinhole camera — see Chase Jarvis Blog: Escaping Your Portfolio — this stuff lights up my brainstem like a strong snort of powdered jalapeños. He is absolutely right not to sit back on his accomplishments, and I’m  inspired by what he’s doing. I hear that damn voice in my head: get busy, get busy you lazy bastard!

For those starting out, suffice to say that to reach your goals the amount of effort you need to put in will be SHOCKINGLY surprising to you; it will seem endless, unfair, irrational. And once you get to the first goal prepare to do all that all over again every five or ten years out if you want to stay relevant, fresh and ultimately, happy.

So yeah, I”m probably pushing things a bit more than I should, but this time around I am heeding my own words in that I have clearly chosen a path I want to follow that I think is my true path, and which I feel I was born to follow. This time I’m not compromising–as much. I’m actually content and in the most creative space I’ve been in for years. I remember how a large part of the insanity of my early days was not having a clear plan, not knowing the price for my dreams in terms of the amount of work I would have to put in. But once you go through the fire of life and actually survive there is not much that can stop you if you believe in something strongly enough.

It is definitely easier now because I know the amount of insane effort required. Because I’ve succeeded while taking risks in the past the fear is much diminished or mostly gone. What the fuck, just move ahead. Have faith. Now for some sleep.


INSPIRATION #4: Driftless
May 19, 2009, 1:26 pm
Filed under: Inspiration


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Danny Wilcox Frazier’s new piece on the rural life in Iowa is breathtaking in it’s simple power. Working with Brian Storm, Bob Sacha and the team at MediaStorm, Danny has created something that not only gives us a profound understanding and new respect for the farmers who struggle to bring us our daily bread, but a perfect, elegant film that synthesizes moving images with still. This will be a lasting document of a place and time. Well worth a look.

MediaStorm: Driftless: Stories from Iowa by Danny Wilcox Frazier



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©2009 Lyle Owerko/CLIC Gallery

©2009 Lyle Owerko/CLIC Gallery

I’m torn sometimes between my core desire to capture moments and to create photographs. I’m also prone to seek the bliss of isolation after periods of intense work. I have to force myself to get out and see what’s going on, but I rarely regret it. So when I am knocked off my feet by such beauty as I recently saw at Lyle Owerko’s show of his project on the Samburu people of Northern Kenya at the CLIC Gallery in Soho I am inspired and overcome with the desire to rush out and do portraits. Lyle goes deep with these lyrical, sensitive portraits and the stunning large prints are hypnotic.

Clic Bookstore & Gallery – New York, St. Barth – ABOUT

In a related vein, Elisabeth Sunday’s AFRICA VI: The Tuareg Portfolios, 2005–2009 presents dramatic figurative portraits of the nomadic Tuareg from the Sahara Desert in Northern Mali, which I also find haunting, lyrical, mystical; they push my inner Jungian dreamscape blast-off button. And I’ve not yet seen these up close, but will next week.

Gallery 291

Back in the US, I was pulled in by Richard Rinaldi’s new monograph “Fall River Boys” from Charles Lane Press, which yields the stark, honest reality of young men coming of age in a struggling New England town. The work rises up and bites when you least expect it to. Eloquent, and also haunting and sad, the images are not without glimmers of dignity and determination as seen on the faces Rinaldi reveals with care.

Charles Lane Press | Fall River Boys

Inspiration alone is a pretty great thing, no?

But it’s deeper than that. I’m responding also to the search for the other, as these artists all seem to me to be pursuing in their own ways. By the “other” I refer to the stranger we encounter in our travels, or even in our own street. Through our understanding of the other, we define ourselves.  The famous journalist Rsyard Kapucinski discusses this phenomenon extensively in his posthumous book “The Other,” Verso, 2008, and refers to the great French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who said “…the self is only possible through the recognition of the other.”

Through my own portraits on my travels I’ve noticed a continuing theme in my work over the years that explores this idea. In all my work, since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed with images that could be called portraits but are made as street shots where the subject has momentarily looked into my lens as I was grabbing the moment––probably they were lost in thought while waiting in a line or while working or whatever––but they looked up at me as I pressed the shutter. There is an unguarded quality as if I have known them all my life and they are trusting me. It’s a lovely fraction of a second when defenses between strangers are down. I have the nerve to look the stranger in the eye and they are completely open to me in turn.

I’ve written a bit about this and how I see this as a search for my own identity and place in the world, and that’s about the size of it. Not at all a conscious effort, just part of what I’m doing. Which may be why the above artist’s work is so exciting and inspiring to me.

And by creating a photograph, as opposed to capturing a portrait as a moment, I mean a situation, most likely a portrait where I’m in dialog with the subject. I’m choosing the background, location and position of the subject, or a still life, or some other conceptual approach such as some of the fashion or advertising work I’ve done that may be more illustrative.

These really seem two sides of the same coin because even moments captured in camera are later partly “created” in terms of how I render the print in the darkroom, digital or wet. There the print becomes an expression and subjective interpretation of how I saw the image. While digital manipulation in terms of switching out heads or changing skies and whatnot is not my thing, burning and dodging is definitely another form of manipulation, and is something very important to me. Since your eye goes to the lightest areas first I can control where your eye moves around the image to yield a heightened emotional response. Some of this may be planned in the exposure and depth of field of course, but in the final print comes the full expression of the idea. And that leads to a discussion about the magic of the print… to be continued…

April 26, 2009, 9:47 am
Filed under: Field Notes & Essays


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“The ideas I’m expressing about true success are scalable and can be modified to fit individual needs. That’s where kaizen comes into play. “

I’m still buzzed from the wonderful, warm bath of good vibrations that made my visit and talk with the photographers of Richmond, VA and the ASMPCV such a blast. Giving one of these talks can be like any performance; entertaining, hopefully inspiring, or…not, and the outcome is more than half driven by the energy of the audience. This was an outstanding audience from which I learned a few things. These folks down here have their heads screwed on right, especially the talented John Henley, who helped arrange my visit. John started in fine art and continues to bring an artist’s eye to his commercial work. In other words, he gets paid to shoot what he loves to shoot. Thinking about John and a conversation we had on the way to the airport got me reflecting again on the merits of kaizen, the Japanese concept of continuous incremental improvement.

©2009 John Henley, from "Midway" series.

©2009 John Henley, from "Midway" series.

These are strange times and I hear from a lot of people struggling to figure it all out, just as I am, and yet for the most part my sense was that life is quite good in Richmond amongst the photo community. People are working, things are happening as reflected by the challenging questions raised by this sharp group. Gathered in a former tobacco warehouse that is now the beautiful studio/gallery of photographer Guy Crittenden I couldn’t help but be impressed with the whole Richmond thing: the town, the people, the almost irritating friendliness (hey I am a New Yorker once again) and the tremendous talent on display on the gallery walls from a show of personal work by the local chapter members.

My talk was based on the themes from my EP essay “On Chaos…” which examines the core challenges we all face in order to create a creatively satisfying life in photography for the long term. These challenges include how to get paid to shoot what we love, building a proper business structure, balancing work and family, thriving and not just surviving kind of stuff. Most photographers are well aware of these issues and working on them. But when I’m listening to someone else articulate ways to address these questions it helps me to recognize my own challenges and to take what is useful from the speaker to apply in my own life. I’m hoping the same can be true for my audience. It really helps me to bounce these ideas off an audience in order to sharpen my own thinking and evolve the dialog. Everything about photography is changing so fast right now so I can’t even pretend to be any kind of authority. I just share my experience and what worked and did not work in the past. Hopefully some of this is useful for the future.

The feedback was very positive so I know I was on the right track for most people. But I had an interesting conversation afterward with Elli Morris who talked about her life and career in terms of having applied most of what I was talking about from the get go. She had acted all along with integrity, following her heart and saying no as much as possible to the bullshit that kills us. This to me is a rare person in photography and her ability to live in that way is exemplary. I was never that mature. Funny, but it does seem that the creative brain is often a beast that must be tamed, and many of my peers have become expert at self-medication. Sometimes this could be a chemical thing– art and madness do seem to go together– and other times it’s related to how we were raised or just the stress of putting your ego on the line. But Elli is also a mature individual, clearly raised with the right amount of self-esteem and gumption to weather the storms of a creative life. Much of what I’m talking and writing about is figuring out how to live like Elli already is living.

On the way to the airport John described similar sentiments that helped me crystalize a thought I need to add to my talks: the ideas I’m expressing about true success are scalable and can be modified to fit individual needs. That’s where kaizen comes into play. When I get rolling I tend to rant a bit, and I try to stress the urgency I feel about how short life is and coming to terms with what you feel is your true voice, putting that in your portfolio and figuring out the proper business structure to support that. For me it really is all or nothing and I can come on a bit strong with my swing for the fences philosophy. That works to get some people motivated, but for others it might be less helpful. If you are feeling trapped by the economy, or in a rut creatively, and trying to feed your family and without resources to change, then my call to action might be frustrating. But if you can make one tiny change such as everyday shooting one picture for yourself to replenish your creative well, you are practicing kaizen. And you can take other small steps, slowly turning your ship around until you are going in the right direction.

To me true success is measured in terms of how satisfied you can be creatively while still getting the bills paid. It is a question of balance, of first defining the goal and step-by-step progress to that goal. It’s doubtful anyone can ever achieve 100 per merger of art and commerce all of the time. There are compromises in reality, the trick is to keep tilting the scale toward your dreams. It’s not going to happen overnight and your version of success is yours alone. John pointed out to me that not everyone will be in the top 20 photographers in the US, nor will they even want to be. Everyone has a different level of ego, ambition and way of defining success. John is not saying people should accept mediocrity either, but to examine what works and does not work for them and begin to look at what their choices have been. What photographers do want is to find a way to make a living from the work that gives them the most joy so their lives are meaningful.

Yet it’s easy to get discouraged, especially if you are moderately successful. There is a keen fear now of rocking the boat. And even if you decide to push yourself to change, practicing kaizen everyday, you will never stop paying your dues. Even the top 20 superstars, whoever they are, will never stop paying their dues if they want to be creatively satisfied. That’s just the reality of what we do. We never reach the ultimate goal. Life truly is a journey––true cliché alert––and needs to be treated as such, appreciating each stage in context.

The inspiring news is that there are many photographers finding ingenious ways to drive their careers into satisfying orbits, even in this economy, and certainly it seems so in Richmond.

April 19, 2009, 9:21 am
Filed under: Field Notes & Essays


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Please join me at ASMPCV chapter in Richmond, VA on April 23, 7pm, in a discussion around the issues in my recent EP essay “Chaos, Fear, Survival & Luck” For more info, please check out their site:

ASMPCV – Central Virginia Chapter of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP)


April 16, 2009, 5:34 pm
Filed under: Blur: A Memoir | Tags: , ,


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“So I laid out my evolving thesis to the crowd of young shooters: if we spent more time with our  families, wouldn’t we then develop more as human beings? Wouldn’t we become more emotionally rounded and more sensitive to the human experience? And wouldn’t that make us better photographers, better able to observe, empathize and understand our subjects on a gut level, rather than what is often a purely visceral news content level? It went over like a lead balloon.”

Our friends Marvi Lacar and Ben Lowy came for dinner last night, with surprising and lovely news that Marvi is pregnant. Naturally the subject came up of how to be a photojournalist and be a good parent. Ben was leaving for Afghanistan in the morning and then possibly returning to Iraq. The discussion was not just about the risks we take to cover the story but being away for extended periods, the endless miles apart from family. When my son was born 21 years ago I was way less mature or prepared to deal with the responsibility then Marvi and Ben. Aside from their incandescent talent and amazing work, they are both incredibly smart and thoughtful people. They will now go through the balancing act a new baby requires. I’ve been writing and talking recently about finding a balance in our work between art and commerce, but this is much deeper and more complicated. Can you have a family and be a dedicated photojournalist?

Sometime in the early 1990’s I was invited to be on the panel of the Flying Short Course. I was the token magazine photojournalist before an audience of mostly young newspaper photographers, many of whom aspired to the perceived glamor and freedom of freelance magazine work. Someday they hoped to be covering wars, celebrities, campaigns, etc., and  expected me to extoll the virtues of my life. True, I was living my dream but was also starting to make the painful decisions that were bringing me to the end-point of that phase in my career. My mindset was very, very different than what my audience was expecting. My son had begun saying inconvenient things like, “Daddy, don’t go,” each time I headed out the door to another far-off assignment. It broke my heart of course. And at that point in my life, not much could get through my field-deadened emotions. And that meant I could no longer ignore the needs of my family for my career. That’s when I started looking for a way to put myself at risk less often, do commercial work or anything that helped me be home more, and deal with the reality I had created. But it is much easier to worry instead about the fierce demands required to not only get across the world but to then get the picture. Much, much easier.

Here’s the first picture I showed in my presentation:


My wife Tereza is holding our two-year old son Paolo in 1989. I had arrived the night before after 8 weeks in China and was leaving at that moment back to China via Hamburg to shoot “A Day in The Life of China,” with 100 of the world’s top photojournalists and then on to another assignment for another month after that. I was able to fit a visit home in San Francisco and had grabbed clean clothes and a meal. As I leaned to kiss my wife goodbye she burst into tears. My son looked at her and also began to cry. My reaction? I snatched the Polaroid off the dresser and shot this image. It was pure training; a moment was happening right in front of me and I reacted as if I was covering a story, instantly. Heartless? Sure, but in retrospect it was probably the only way I could have suppressed the very real pain of leaving my family. I was steeling my mind for more weeks on the road. Super glamorous.

Since then I”ve shown this picture in my talks and workshops because it was such a searing pivotal moment for me in my evolution as a photographer and a person and often relevant to younger shooters contemplating their futures. My heroes in photojournalism, most of the legends, had pretty much abandoned their families to survive as best they could while away on shoots. All my mentors were divorced and married to the camera and job. The attitude I learned with was that to be any good, you had to be willing to die for the picture. It was the work, the work, the work. Everything else came second, if at all.

The life I led then was similar to so many magazine news photographers. You kept a bag packed at all times. You had your eye on the news all the time looking for stories. You would either get a call to cover something or you’d pitch a story. If there was a big story and you could get to it first or second you’d just go knowing your agent would secure the “guarantees” for a number of days plus space. You could never say no to an editor or ever, ever fuck up. At a conference in the 80’s I once heard a young photogapher ask Roxanne Edwards at Business Week what would happen if, you know, somehow the film just did not turn out? Response: “Then you would never work for us again.” Sharp, honest, true answer. But seriously, doh! The other editors on the panel from Time, Newsweek, US News all shook their heads solemnly in agreement. The pressure to get world-class images on deadline against tremendous competition was unrelenting, yet it was also what fueled us. I was on the road so much that at one point I had to write notes to myself before I passed out in my hotel with the name of the city I was in, so when I woke up I’d know where the hell I was. Berlin. Bangkok. Khartoum. Paris. One trip had me shooting in 17 countries in 17 days.

And I do believe there is a natural tendency when you photograph the misery in the world– people dying or starving– to shut down our emotions, not that differently from an EMT at an accident scene. You must function as a professional. The by-product is that we become damaged goods; emotionally stunted, untreated PTS victims. This is just another layer on top of what the loneliness of the road does to you. I’d say some of us probably become borderline sociapaths. But hey, I’m probably just confusing some photojournalists with hard core paparazzi. Kidding! Or maybe not…

So I laid out my evolving thesis to the crowd of young shooters: if we spent more time with our  families, friends or significant others, wouldn’t we then develop more as human beings? Wouldn’t we become more emotionally rounded and more sensitive to the human experience? And wouldn’t that make us better photographers, better able to observe, empathize and understand our subjects on a gut level, rather than what is often a purely visceral news content level? It went over like a lead balloon. One slightly older guy approached me later with tears in his eyes and said he was struggling with just this issue. But the reaction from the crowd that day, and later from my my peers was pretty negative. None of my friends––who were also my competition––had kids and most were not yet married. From there I chose my own path and moved into a kind of wilderness of isolation from my colleagues and clients in photojournalism. A new life began.

This photograph of my wife and son is always a good reminder to me of the goals I set to try to be a better parent. My son is now a talented musician finishing college so for that I’m grateful. Obviously my career could not have happened without the support of my wife who became my partner in the business and primary caregiver. For her, the decision was easier because she was told she’d never have children. Our son was a miracle kid and she wanted to be part of his every minute. And this issue is obviously more complicated for women in general. It used to be that most women became picture editors; now there are many more women in the field shooting– not enough, but still way more.

Of course smart people will find ways to balance the competing needs of work and family, that’s not new. The issue is about what it takes to do what Ben does in Afghanistan. Can you be at that level, all in, and still create a balance? It can be done I think, but it is not easy and only with careful planning. And with so many more people starting families while working in photojournalism I’m interested to learn some of the creative solutions out there.

The truth that I’ve learned to live with and embrace is this: how my son turns out is way more important than any picture I produce. His impact on his world, the world he grows into, his friends or future family, is my only real legacy. And I’m so, so fine with that.

April 13, 2009, 12:18 pm
Filed under: Field Notes & Essays | Tags: , , , , , ,


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Transcendent Spirit: The Orphans of Uganda


ALL PROFITS TO THE KIDS Transcendent Spirit: The Orphans of Uganda: Douglas Menuez: Books

The stories featured in Transcendent Spirit illuminate the smallest fraction of Uganda’s heartbreaking history with HIV/AIDS. I believe you will be moved by the magnificent photographs by Doug Menuez as much as I have been. It is through his caring lens that we see the children and experience their courage, joy and innate beauty. This book brings these young lives into sharp focus, and we must never look away.”

–– Dame Elizabeth Taylor


“Transcendent Spirit: The Orphans of Uganda”

Rarely do pictures alone create change. What does change things is money— funds to pay for food, clothing and the critically important education that catapults these children forward to lives of meaning. Therefore all profits are going to the foundation : : : Empower African Children : : : to support these amazing children.

Please buy the book, make a difference!

Sponsored by Macy’s, Produced by David Elliot Cohen, Intro by Dame Elizabeth Taylor , published by Beaufort Books, NY.