Interview: Thomas Hawk

Tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Thomas Hawk. I’m a blogger and American photographer. I’m working to publish 1,000,000 photographs online before I die. I’ll pretty much shoot just about anything.

How did you become interested in photography?

I started taking photographs when I was around 7 years old. I can’t remember where I got it but I used to use a Kodak Instamatic camera. I used to love going to K-Mart to get my photos back after they were developed. I’ve been interested in photography as early as I can remember. When I was 15 I got my first SLR, a Sigma system. I took the camera with me on a bike ride across the U.S. at 15 from Oregon to Delaware. I took a photography course at Glendale Community College the next summer and began developing and printing my own film after that. During high school and college I worked as editor-in-chief of the yearbook and college newspaper and pretty much always had access to a working darkroom during those years. It’s been in my blood for a while.

What was the first photograph that you remember making an impression on you?

I think the first photograph that I remember making an impression was a photograph of a snow woman. My dad took slide photos before I was born when he was stationed in the Air Force up in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska and one of the slide photos that he took was of a snow woman (complete with breasts) that he had taken. There was also one of his motorcycle that I remember. When we were kids we used to love to get his slides out and watch slide shows of them in the living room at night.

What were the early steps you took, to grow as a photographer? Are you a self taught photographer or did you have a mentor that showed you the ropes?

Other than the course at Glendale Community College during summer break when I was 16, I’ve had no formal training and would consider myself entirely self taught. My earliest steps were probably in the dark room learning how to print, how to dodge and burn and do other things. I’ve never had a mentor in photography although there are thousands of photographers I’ve watched over the years that I admire very much. Personally I sort of look at my photography in two stages, pre-digital and post-digital. Pre-digital I think my growth took place learning how I could manipulate photos and make them look better and better in the darkroom. I think post digital the major contributor or steps for me involved around learning how to shoot massive amounts of images on a daily basis.

What sort of equipment do you use? Which is most important or vital? Any favorite lenses? Anything you don’t have that you would like to use?

I shoot mostly with a Canon 5D system at present. I’ve got five lenses that I carry with me 24/7 (a 14mm f/2.8, a 24mm f/1.4, a 50mm f/1.2, a 100mm EF Macro, and the 135 f/2). I’ve got a Canon 5D that I use as a back up camera and lots of other gear, tripods, cable releases, memory cards, hard drives, extenders, etc. My favorite lens is the 135 f/2. Right now I think I’ve pretty much got everything I need in terms of gear. Someday when I grow up I’m going to be a Hasselblad. I’d love to work with a Hasselblad system, but the equipment is pretty out of my price range for the time being. I’m really not a big believer in the power of the gear though, I think all the best gear in the world won’t help you much without the right creativity and imagination.

Would you give a brief walk through your work flow?

I take hundreds of photos typically every single day. Some trips involve even more with thousands of photos a day. Each day’s photos are all shot in full resolution RAW format. Each day’s shots go into a folder by that day. Each day’s archives are kept on Drobo storage drives. I work on the images from a given day using Adobe’s Lightroom 2 mostly on a MacBook Pro. Step one is to flag images that I’m interested in. Step two is to use Lightroom’s develop module to process each of these. I have a number of favorite presets that I use more as starting points than anything else in the processing process. As I process the photos I export them as JPG files into a “finished photos” folder.

Once I’m done with a day’s processing I’ll then keyword those images in the Lightroom Library module. After keywording I use Google Maps and geotaggr and geotag my images manually. From here I put these newly keyworded and geotagged processed images into either A or B folders for upload (A being what I consider my stronger images, B being what I consider my weaker images). From here photos are then pulled pretty much at random to be uploaded daily to Flickr and Zooomr. I’m uploading about 300 photos a week at present which are pulled from this growing archive of work.

How do you decide on locations & subjects? Where is your favorite location to take pictures?

I don’t think I have a specific favorite location to shoot in. More generally I’d say the American City. I love the urban environment and think that there is an amazing amount of beauty in America’s cities and even small towns. I’m trying to visit as many American towns and cities as I can and take trips to shoot them. I just got back from Chicago. Earlier this year I shot Reno and Los Angeles. I’d like to visit every city in America to shoot in. Someday I’m going to actually walk across America with my camera. This will be less about American cities and more about America as a whole.

These days though mostly I’m either out and about on the streets of the Bay Area where I live or planning trips to various places. Later this year I’m going to go shoot L.A. more, Reno again, Bakersfield, Redding, and I’ll probably make it up to Yreka at some point. But there are so many American Cities that I still need to shoot and will visit in the months ahead. Dallas, Atlanta, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Boston, Phoenix, Miami, so many places still to shoot.

I love shooting abandoned stuff as well. I’d like to do more with that both in the Bay Area and around America.

Do you rely on lighting (natural, or artificial)?

Almost all my work is done with natural lighting. I’ll do some night light painting and use a Speedlite flash from time to time, but really I’m not a big lighting guy.

In general, during a session, how many pics would you say you take to find “the right one”?

I probably average about 300 photos a day and probably end up processing about 50 of the 300 from a given shoot.

How do you make your subjects feel relaxed in front of the camera?

This is a challenge for me. In a way, my style of shooting is somewhat hyperactive. I move around a lot, jump from scene to scene. I rarely spend much time with any one person unless I know them well. I’m not sure that there is any easy way to get people to feel relaxed other than time. Unless you are willing to invest a lot of time with someone and get to the point where they don’t realize the camera is there anymore I think it will always be difficult to get that sort of relaxed thing. There are some photographers who do this really well. Mary Ellen Mark’s level of intimacy with her subjects can clearly be seen in the photos that she makes. But I don’t think that all portraits necessarily need to be that intimate or even relaxed. Stephen Shore has some amazing portraits of people that he’s taken that he’d just run across in every day life, the guy at the gas station who pumped his gas, the waitress who served him, etc.

When I was in Reno I went into a bar to shoot a neon sign from a dry cleaner that had been moved there to live. I was just going in for 5 minutes to shoot the sign but ended up staying about four hours after meeting Georgia, the bartender who was super friendly and seemed to welcome the intrusion of my camera and willingly posed as she did her thing for hours. I got something in some of these portraits that I don’t think I usually do. But there is a cost. A time commitment. I need to spend more time with people than I do. I think that’s how you get some of the best portraits. It’s a challenge for me.

How do you know when a photo, of yours, is really good?

That’s a good question. I suppose I don’t really know. I’m not the world’s best editor of my own work. Every so often I’ll just feel like I really got something special with a shot. Usually I know right then and there that I have something important. Frequently, but not always, many of these shots turn out to be some of my most popular shots when posted online. Other times though I’ll find something that I just love and most people could care less when I post it. Good is such a subjective term. Honestly I have no idea.

How would you describe your style?

active, hyperactive, democratic, digital.

Do you ever find yourself in a “photo funk”, and, if so, how do you get out of it?

Sometimes I do actually. The best thing to do is to simply force yourself to shoot anyways. Sometimes I get bored of San Francisco. How many times can I wander the Tenderloin or the Financial District or the Mission and shoot? But really that’s the difference between the great artist and the good artist. There is a discipline I believe that comes with forcing yourself to work. If you look at some of the greatest artists you’ll see that they had insatiable work ethics. William Eggleston, Andy Warhol, street photographers like Garry Winogrand. Lee Friedlander. The sheer number of photos that these photographers is boggling. Charles Bukowski once said that endurance was more important than truth. I believe that when you find yourself in a “photo funk” you have to reach deep down and find the discipline that forces you onward. You’ll get over it. But you won’t get over it unless you get out there with your camera and start clicking.

How do you market yourself? Do you advertise? If so where? How important is an awesome website for your business?

Personally for me marketing is entirely unimportant right now. I don’t advertise. I have a blog and a flickrstream and a Twitter account and a Facebook account and a FriendFeed account and all that, but I’m mostly using these for personal interaction and enjoyment rather than any business purposes per se. I do sell photos all the time, but at present I’m not really interested in proactively marketing my work. Right now the focus is more on doing the work that needs to be done which is largely being out shooting and processing and posting.

Is there anybody or anything you would love to photograph?

Oh a few million things. I think I’ve got a Google Map set up for every state in America. Each state is filled with pushpins of locations I’d like to shoot. I’m collecting images of neon signs so many are of there. But there are countless cemeteries, malls, abandoned sites, landmarks, etc. that I need and would love to shoot. I’m always interested in shooting interesting looking people. Famous interesting looking people, not famous interesting looking people. But no one specifically that I’d say I really would love to photograph. I do suppose there are some specific heroes of mine that I’d love an opportunity to shoot in my lifetime. People like William Eggleston or Lee Friedlander.

What’s the wildest thing you’ve done to gain better access for a shot?

Wow, I’m not really sure on that. I suppose a lot of great sites for shooting are not technically sort of public areas for shooting. Abandoned locations. Hotels. Commercial Office Space with high security. I suppose I generally operate under the assumption that it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission and tend to take an attitude more conducive to urban exploration. So sometimes you have to be creative to get to some of these locations. I’m not sure anything specific comes to mind though.

Who are the 3-5 most inspiring photographers to you?

Well that’s a super tough question because there are literally thousands of photographers that I admire, but for a quick short list I’d probably say William Eggleston, Garry Winogrand, Stephen Shore, Lee Friedlander, Andy Warhol and Angelo Rizzuto. I also admire the work of many of the photo realist painters, especially people like Richard Estes, but the whole genre there is pretty spectacular.

What has been your most memorable assignment/project and why?

I think my most memorable assignment hasn’t happened yet. To that end I have sort a personal saying that I say which is that the best photographs in the world have yet to be taken. There are so many great shoots that I’ve been on though, too many at this point though really to call any specific assignment or project most memorable.

*****

I’ve enjoyed getting to know Thomas over the past few years. Thomas was the first person to introduce me to photowalking. Since then, I’ve met some quite wonderful photographers, who turned out to be pretty neat people too. If you’re looking for someone to motivate you, if for no other reason than the shear mountain of photos he creates ever day, check out more of Thomas’ work. You can find his stuff on Flickr and Zooomr.

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