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Feature: the quiet, lovely photographs of Joseph O. Holmes
Wednesday, April 27, 2011 | by Eamon Hickey
Self-Portrait: Joseph O. Holmes
On the spectrum of promising ways to make a living, fine-art photography exists way out at one end - the wrong end, not too far from shooting craps or, say, selling acorns door to door. Yet, without ever really planning to, Joseph O. Holmes has found himself making a go of it. (Holmes, who lives in Brooklyn, is not to be confused with the Joseph Holmes in California, another accomplished photographer.)

"What exactly is a fine-art photographer?" Holmes says when asked if that's what he is. "I guess it's somebody who shoots primarily for making prints and hanging them in galleries or peoples' homes. I spend most of my time shooting with that end in mind, and it's my main source of income."

Holmes, 57, slid more or less accidentally into photography as a profession only six or seven years ago, after a career as a writer and, for the twelve years before that, as a criminal appeals lawyer in New York City.

"I've been a photographer at one level or another since ninth grade," Holmes says, "but it didn't really take off until my first digital camera. It tapped some kind of creativity that I was keeping bottled up because film was expensive."

Discovering obsessions

That first camera was a digital point-and-shoot, purchased in 2003, followed quickly by a Nikon D70. One day in 2005, Holmes was using the D70 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and he happened to shoot a silhouette of a person standing in front of one of the museum's famous habitat dioramas.

"I thought it was really interesting," Holmes says of that image. "So I went up to shoot more of those. That turned into two weeks, then a month. It became an obsession.

2D: Nikon D70 + AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G VR at 78mm, ISO 400, 1/60, f/2.8. Click to enlarge (Photo by Joseph O. Holmes)

"That's when the light bulb went off. This is about doing a project, one idea, a series," Holmes says. He stresses that he lets individual photographs lead him to the concept, not the other way around. "I start off captivated by this image in front of me. I start to shoot them because for some reason I feel obsessed about capturing them." If the obsession lasts, a project may be born.

Going pro

With a solid group of images from the Natural History Museum in hand, Holmes began entering them in competitions for group gallery shows. His diorama silhouettes were very popular, and he got them into many group shows around the U.S. He had also started a photo blog and, over time, it built up an audience of several hundred unique visitors a day.

Holmes shot more projects and continued to enter his work in group show competitions. He doesn't remember selling any prints in those shows, but one of them led to Jen Bekman representing him in her New York gallery. He is also now represented by Wall Space Gallery in Santa Barbara, California. His large, limited-edition gallery prints typically sell for prices in the low to mid four figures.

Shortly after hooking up with The Jen Bekman Gallery, Holmes also began selling his work through 20x200, a project created by the iconoclastic Bekman to make original art available to a wide audience at reasonable prices. An 8 x 10-inch print from 20x200 sells for US$20 (and is offered in editions of 200, hence the name). Holmes is a very popular 20x200 artist, with more than twenty sold out editions. Despite the disparate subjects of his images, there is a carefully crafted, quiet beauty running through them all, and his steady sales attest to its strong appeal.

Beautiful machines

A project like his Custom Machinery series is a good example of how Holmes works. The images are from a Brooklyn machine shop, owned and operated for more than four decades by Hugo Picciani, now in his 80s. The shop makes custom replacement parts for machines that are no longer produced - medical equipment, antique radios, that kind of thing. One day, Holmes saw Picciani standing outside his shop, and the photographer introduced himself. Holmes had been working for some time on a project photographing workspaces - peoples' desks, work tables, and the like.

"I wandered into that shop thinking I would get another image for my workspace series," Holmes says, "but those machines were so beautiful - the oil on those machines in that light. And Hugo was so welcoming. Once again, I got kind of obsessed."

He ended up going to Picciani's shop two or three days a week for the next two months. For the first two weeks, he spent many hours shooting images that he later threw out. He tried to shoot the machines under the shop's fluorescent lights but wasn't satisfied. So he brought in his own lights and lighting modifiers.

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Hugo Picciani: Nikon D700 + AF 50mm f/1.4D, ISO 800, 1/500, f/2. Click to enlarge (Photo by Joseph O. Holmes)

"At first, I shot the machine images like portraits," Holmes says, "but that looked terrible. I ended up using my lights like they were shop lights. I was doing lots of experimenting. At the same time, Hugo and the guys in the shop would wander around and talk my ear off. They had great stories from the thirties and forties. So I started bringing up my camera and taking pictures of them. Those are all under the shop lights. I always thought of [the machines and the employees] as totally different, two different series'. But people kept encouraging me to mix them together."

All the Custom Machinery images were shot with a Nikon D700 and, more often than not, either the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D, AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED or the AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D IF lens. Holmes also singles out for high praise his AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED VR and his AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED.

Holmes lit Picciani's machinery with Nikon Speedlights - two SB-600s and an SB-800 - on stands with umbrellas and softboxes. He shot most often at ISO 400 and 800, so he could use a small aperture and maximize depth of field. On the previous workspaces project, he had become expert at shooting to maximize detail, using techniques like mirror lockup and a heavy tripod stabilized with extra hanging weight. "I did everything I could to squeeze every ounce of information out of every pixel," he says. "I'd even wait for traffic to pass when I was shooting some of those workspace images."

Making it look lit

In Picciani's shop, in contrast to the machinery shots, Holmes made all the people shots handheld, at ISOs in the 200 to 800 range. "One of the things I want is for [a portrait image] to look like I lit it," Holmes says. "Just a little bit. Not enough to look like studio lighting. On almost all of my portraits, I do my own version of vignetting. I darken everything in the image except the subject."

He often achieves this effect through exposure bracketing. "My [D700] is almost permanently set for three exposures," Holmes says. "It's set for eight frames-per-second, so my three exposures happen pretty fast." Typically, he sets the bracketing for increments of 2/3rds of a stop. "If the brackets are solid, I can use the bright image for the subject—the person—and the darker image for the rest of the scene. That can be really effective. And then I'll sharpen only the important parts of the image and leave the rest soft."

Sharpening is, of course, an especially important skill for someone whose images may be offered in prints sizes up to 30 x 40 inches, and Holmes has spent a lot of time fiddling with his technique. "I basically sharpen just with the Unsharp Mask in Photoshop. I might do one sharpening pass with a very small radius at a high amount, and then do another sharpening on top of that, also at a small radius and high amount. A lot of it is trial and error. I end up doing a lot of proofs."

Holmes uses Apple Aperture as his main cataloging and organizing tool. He converts RAW images using Adobe Camera Raw within Photoshop, but he doesn't make much use of its image adjustment tools, relying instead on all the features available in Photoshop itself. He makes heavy use of layers and Smart Objects in Photoshop, so that he can undo or refine his edits even months later.

When he makes prints himself, Holmes uses his Epson Stylus Pro 3880, which can print on media up to seventeen inches wide. For larger widths, he sends his images to Eric Recktenwald, who runs a custom print shop in Minneapolis, Minnesota called The Lab. Recktenwald also makes prints for the 20x200 project.

Getting your pictures to people

When Holmes looks at how his career has developed - from the creative spark he got from his first digital cameras through his early group shows to selling thousands of prints via 20x200 - he sees a lesson in the confluence of digital photography, desktop printing, and the Internet.

"Twenty years ago, without the exposure on the Internet, maybe a few hundred people would see your work [in a gallery]," he says. "After that, I don't know? Maybe a magazine? How would you get your pictures exposed to people? But with my photo blog, with digital cameras, with inkjet printers, it opened everything up. The idea of a large edition with a low price is a great idea, but without the Internet I don't know if it would have made a difference. The whole paradigm has changed."

A gallery of Holmes' photographs is on the next page, as well as links to his website and blog.
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