An interview with Thomas Hawk
We talk about, Google+ the million photos project, the digital age of photography and his neon signs project and 100 largest cities.
Lets start by telling us about yourself Thomas
I’m Thomas Hawk. I’m a San Francisco Bay Area based photographer. I’ve been shooting most of my life in one form or another. I embraced digital photography and internet photo sharing early and now share and post photography to the web every single day.
I have a long-term goal of publishing a large body of work to the web. I’d like to publish 1 million photographs over my lifetime. It’s important to me that the quality of this body of work remain high and underneath this longer-term goal I have lots of more specific and focused photography related projects, probably the one I’m most serious about right now is documenting the 100 largest American cities.
I’m a married father of four and my wife and kids frequently show up in my archive of images.
I grew up in Southern California and moved up to the Bay Area after college.
I must say that’s is a very ambitious project! I’m guessing your family life and your two very ambitious project must take up most if not all of your time!
So tell us, where did the idea of the million photo project come from?
I’ve always believed in goal setting. I think goals help hold you accountable to something. A number of years back I stumbled upon a quote by Nietzsche that Jack Kerouac used to inspire his writing. It read, “Art is the highest task and the proper metaphysical activity of this life.” I think incorporating art into your daily existence has positive and beneficial impact on life.
For me the goal of a million photos was put in place to keep me disciplined on creation. It was an ambitious number that would require tremendous work and dedication and a goal that could be broken down into units of time and applied during my entire life.
I do work very hard and between my family and my photography I don’t have a lot of time left. I probably sleep less than the average person and I try very hard to maximize my time while I’m awake. By eliminating certain things from my life I can free up more time for things that matter to me. I think a lot of people don’t realize how much time they actually do have though. People waste all kinds of time every single day. Staying focused and on project as much as possible helps.
I’ve been impressed and inspired with some of the work by people who dedicate themselves in really big ways. Garry Winogrand, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander are all photographers who work very, very hard and the result is that they produce a very large high quality body of work.
Sleep is overrated Thomas, your work is fantastic especially the night shows how do you get them so perfect? What are you shooting with? Could you perhaps give any tips to other photographers or spill any of your secrets?
I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark III which helps a bit with night photography. That camera has great high iso performance. Equally these days, the noise reduction capabilities of software have made making night images much easier than they’ve ever been. A tripod and long exposure is always a tool as well.
I don’t think night photography is especially difficult. Use a tripod and shoot at iso 200 or so and use a cable release to find a feel for what feels right. Smaller apertures (bigger numbers) will give you more star like lights. Get a flashlight and some gels and experiment with long exposure light painting. You can use Flickr to search for areas around you that might be best suited for night photography. Bridges, abandoned structures, highways, I think all of these make for interesting night subject matter.
So tell us more about your neon lights project
Well a few years back I read this article about how Vancouver Canada used to have all of these amazing neon signs. Apparently in it’s hay day Vancouver had over 19,000 signs. At some point they became associated with unsavoury elements and blight and so laws were enacted prohibiting neon signs. So many of the great signs over the decades were subsequently lost. When I read this I realized even around me in the Bay Area how many great old neon signs were quickly disappearing, so I sort of started this quest to capture as many neon signs as I possibly could, recognizing that so many will be lost in the next decade.
I think I’ve probably shot over 20,000 signs all over America at this point. I’ve published about half of these or over 10,000 or so signs that may represent the largest collection of neon signs ever captured. http://goo.gl/1xH2p At least it’s the largest collection of neon signs on Flickr.
In my photography I think a lot about how photographs will age. If you look at so many of the wonderful photographs taken by William Eggleston or Stephen Shore from the 1970s you realize how much a sense of time is evident in their work. To me I see neon signs as something that will be associated with a certain time in America. It seems like every day another old classic vintage sign is being replaced by some cheap ugly fluorescent eye sore.
So neon has been something of an obsession for me. Trying to capture as much of it as I can while it’s still around. It is something of a bottomless pit as far as projects go, but I do feel that preserving all of these great signs even if only from a photographic perspective is an important preservation project.
A digital preservation project, I like it. It’s very interesting I must say and it will probably never end I’m amazed at the size of your project so far over 20,000 signs it’s ridiculous wow. You really do put a lot of work into the project
Your night photography is fantastic. Photography I think is great especially when colour is strongly involved. Creativity and colour are two things I value in photography! So what do you think about Google+ and the community on Google+ ?
The Google+ community is just fantastic. By and large it’s a large, positive, enthusiastic community of diverse photographers who are some of the most social photographers on the web. Photographers of all different experience levels share space together and Google has built us a really wonderful platform to share our work.
I’ve been surprised and impressed at how creative the community has been in terms of organizing unique and interesting ways to interact. Chrysta Rae’s Scavenger Hunt, real life trips and meet ups, the work that Ivan Makarov has done with print publications, all of these are examples of the community coming together in creative and interesting ways.
More than anything though, the day in and day out interaction makes Google+ really the place to be for photographers on the web today. I think it’s a really welcoming community and one that everyone who cares about photography on the web should consider participating in.
Google staff and employees have added to the community by getting personally involved in some really good ways as well.
Hangouts also create a more personal way for people to get to know each other. This feature really accelerates what is possible in terms of social connection here.
Once again I have to agree with an opinion on the Google+ community (it seems everybody has similar views) I love it and it’s great to see what people can do with their photography on here part of the ethos behind a week in plus.
Hangouts are fantastic and many people are doing regular shows for example, you have Billy Wilson‘s shows, M Monica and Lisa Miller are doing a show and Carra Riley, Vince Ong and Margaret Tompkins run a show together and often invite guests along and it’s really a great way for people to interact and to get to know each other.
So Thomas, what pushed you into photography? What made you wake up one day and think “I want to start and shoot the world around me?”
I think it’s just always been in my blood. Every since I was 7 years old and first started shooting with a Kodak Instamatic, I’ve always been drawn to it. It’s emotionally woven into who I am at this point and part of this probably has to do with that fact that I was as involved with it as I was when I was a kid. I got my first SLR when I was 15 and so in some of the really important years of my life I was rolling, developing and printing my own film. This sort of early exposure and tool as a means of expression just has never left.
The thrill of opening up the envelope at KMart to see how my photos came out when I was a kid probably has something to do with it.
I can’t quite remember where the buzz from taking photos started with me, it was around the age I went to live with my Grandparents as they had a film camera just a point and shoot thing they took on holiday with them and I’d used about two rolls of film in as many days and it got the point they were giving me empty camera because I’d take that many. They must had spent a fortune on disposables. I think we still have some of the photos of random things around the house when I’d been “playing” with the camera. Ever since then I’d been really into photography and the digital age has been the best thing ever for me and photography.
Well digital photography really opened up a different way of shooting for me. I bought one of the very first consumer digital cameras that was available, the Sony Mavica. You literally put floppy disks into the side of the thing that could hold about 12 photos. As the technology improved and developed I continued upgrading to where I am today.
The biggest thing digital has done for me is to open up the concept of unlimited film. Back in the film days I’d save money by bulk loading all my own film. This brought the cost to shoot down some, but not the way digital has. With digital, once you buy the gear you have this sense of freedom that comes with the low cost of creating every image. Storage is relatively cheap and so now I don’t hesitate to fire away ever.
In a way this is bad because I’ve become much less thoughtful about any one particular image. I may shoot something 18 different ways in order to create one final image. I don’t worry at all about wasted or bad shots. In the past film days I’d probably spend more time thinking more carefully about how to shoot something. Now I just try a lot of things and keep what I think works.
This isn’t to say that I don’t care about careful, thoughtful photography — I really do. But it’s just that I don’t hesitate to also throw in careless shots which sometimes turn out to be the winners when I examine my frames more carefully later in post production.
Obviously software plays a much bigger role now as well and so I no longer spend time in darkrooms (although they remain a very nostalgic place for me). Instead I spend all that time behind a large screen monitor working with individual images with software.
Unlimited film as you put it does open the doors to new things such as panoramic photography.
So what tools do you use to edit your work? How has being able to do much more with editing influenced your work?
I mostly use Lightroom 4.2 as my main editing engine. I’ll take things into Photoshop to work on them too sometimes. I also like to use FX Photo Studio Pro to add simplified effects to certain photos. Sometimes I’ll play around with Nik Silver Efex Pro. On One Software lets you do some interesting things too. I usually just work with an image until I feel I’ve gotten what I want out of it.
I’ve heard of On One but never used any of their software and nik software has some amazing tools so who are some of your favourite photographers from Google+?
God, how could I ever name favorites? There are just too many. I could spend hours browsing photos on Google+. I do have a circle of about 2,000 of my favorite Google+ photographers here: http://thomashawk.com/2012/06/2000-kick-ass-photographers-on-google.html
So could I not pressure you for 5 of them?
Haha, no I think that 2,000 is better than 5
I can’t argue with that, so where do you think photography will take you or where would you like to go with photography? Besides the 1 million photos project, the 100 largest cities of USA project and the Neon Lights project?
You know I’m not really sure. Occasionally I find that popularity as a photographer can open doors. I’m always looking for unique locations to shoot in. I’m always interested in meeting new people. As I bounce around I just usually go down whatever road I find myself going down. Inevitably I’m pleasantly surprised at where I end up with my camera. People are really generous I’ve found. I’m sort of just a go with the flow sort of guy. This next year I’ll probably shoot four or five major American cities. I’ll probably also shoot a lot of stuff around the SF Bay area. So I’ll probably continue with a lot of the same.
I’m super focused on America and so I’ve turned down almost all international opportunities in the past few years. I imagine I’ll continue to work on documenting America. There’s so much still left to explore. I’ve only photographed 32 of the 100 largest American cities so far. There is so much more work to do out on the road — Route 66, the Lincoln Highway, small towns in Nevada or Idaho or Alabama. I need to shoot Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and Phoenix. I’d like to shoot more festivals. I’d like to shoot more live music. So much still to shoot.
Everyday is full of opportunities to shoot I’ll be honest I feel guilty the days I don’t shoot or do something like this but with my kit right now most them come out as total crud.
Google+ must be a huge opportunity for you and has opened many doors how has the following you have on Google+ affected you in you if it has at all?
I don’t know that it’s affected me really. I mean, having a large following on Google+ definitely can open doors which has been helpful. I don’t feel any different than before Google+ came along though personally. I’ve met some really cool people through Google+, but I don’t think that’s unique to me. I was fortunate to get involved with it very early on and so I was able to get a lot of my photography friends here early. I think the biggest opportunity it’s given me is just a much larger platform to distribute my work on. As an artist I want my work to be seen by as many people as possible and to be distributed as widely as it can and I think Google+ has really helped with that.
Yea people seem to think everybody who got in early ended up with a huge following, that’s a myth I got on in the July of the closed beta and here I am 5300 and something followers later but it’s a great place for me I share my photography and I’ve made friends and hope to make more.
So what would you say to any aspiring photographers?
Work hard. Do it because something inside of you has to do it. Do it even when you don’t feel like doing it.
Don’t worry if nobody else ever gets you or your work. Do it because it’s important to you.
Resist the temptation to let other people influence your work. Don’t listen to haters or naysayers or people who are negative towards your art in any way. Remember it was the great Ansel Adams who was once so critical of the great William Eggleston when he first emerged daring to taunt the world with the concept of colour photography. Thank God Eggleston never paid attention to all of Adams’ criticism. Dismiss each and every critic. Be true to your heart and to your creative inner vision alone — everything else is noise.
Never say anything negative about someone else’s work. Even if you don’t like it keep it to yourself. Smile and say, “that’s interesting.” If you do like something say so and why. Give praise and favourites and all that to others liberally.
Pay attention to what the kids are shooting.
Associate with people who are positive and who will help you grow. It’s fine to do it for money, but don’t ever only do it for the money.
If you even have an inkling of an urge, press the shutter. If you drive pass something that you think you should have snapped a photo of turn around and go back. If you hesitate in any way always choose to shoot.
Share your work and your art.
Travel. Go places where you might not feel comfortable.
If someone asks you to take their photograph always take it, no matter what, 100% of the time.
Editing your work is as important as shooting.
Remember the quote by Cartier-Bresson that says your first 10,000 photos are your worst. In today’s digital world change that quote to your first 110,000 photos are your worst. Once you get your first 110,000 photographs out of the way you’ll have a much better idea of what you’re doing and why.
I’ve been wondering why do you want to visit and shoot the 100 largest cities in America?
More than the 100 largest cities I want to photograph America. The 100 largest cities is just a quantifiable goal that I can be compulsive about. As soon as I finish shooting the 100 largest I’ll probably shoot the next 100 largest. More than anything it’s a way to get as complete a version of America as possible, recognizing that there are many road trips between large cities that capture the rural side of America too. Sometimes that side of America is just as amazing as the urban side. I spent time this summer shooting Southern Oregon. What a treat. I’ve found so many unique things in every city I visit though. Every time I shoot a city I think, wow, that was the best city I’ve ever photographed — but none actually are the best really, all are the best.
Wow so you really are on the road a lot! Do you ever stop? What do you do to unwind?
I’m not sure I’m good at unwinding. I always like to be working. Working for me is therapeutic. I will say that the thing that recharges me the most is being able to hold and hug my kids and feel that connection. I love them so much and sometimes just holding my littlest one and talking to her for hours heals my soul in the most amazing ways. They are so beautiful and I’m so fortunate and blessed to have them in my life.
When I do unwind I think probably my favourite way is to sit back on the coach with photos running on the large display in the living room, some music in the background, a few glasses of wine and the bustle of my family going on around me. It’s also nice to get out with my wife to a nice restaurant where we can both slow down and catch up for a few hours while enjoying a great meal and a bottle of wine — the bonus of a great meal is that you can also always get some great new food photographs as well.