We first saw Cass' documentary piece on migrant workers and noted his knack for highlighting the hidden aspects of the "obvious" shot. When we asked if he'd would work with us on a story about using the Magnum 200 AW as a portable studio, we discovered he only recently left his old career to become a full-time photographer. The struggle to leave behind the old in pursuit of one's true calling is pretty compelling. We're intrigued by Cass' story and hope you will be, too.
I've always wanted to tell stories. When I got out of high school, I enrolled in the journalism program at San Jose State. But I had been taking photos since I was 10 with the Fujica camera my dad gave me. I took it everywhere. So, even when I wrote, I would start with a visual idea that I would later try to turn into words. I communicate best through images and photographs.
I ended up sort of doing the corporate grind with a two-hour commute instead. But I wanted to do something that would make some kind of impact, and that wasn't it. If you're going to do something for 40 years, it might as well be something you enjoy – something you have passion for – and for me, it's photography.
I decided if I wanted to make the jump, this was the time to do it. This was my chance. I had been taking photos all my life. So, let's make a career out of it.
I had a two-year opportunity to go for a BFA in photography at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and I decided to go for it. I staked everything I had by quitting my job and going back to school out of my own pocket. After being out of school, it was strange going back to school with these 18-year-olds who would say things like, "I'm not sure if I want to go to class today". And I was thinking, "Hey, this is real money here"!
When I first got back to class, I wanted to be like the photographers from Magnum Photo and all that stuff. But then you realize how hard the photography profession is when you see four billion photos at Flickr; or when you Google a photographer's name and there are 18 other photographers with the same name. It's overwhelming. What's my style? What's my niche going to be?
My nightmare was that I was going to wake up someday at the mall taking portrait photos. I'm sure those photographers make a decent living out of it, but it's just not what I want to do. Sometimes, I'd walk by one in the mall just to motivate me to keep pushing forward.
Even though I shoot digitally, I still love film. Sometimes it feels like what everybody is trying to do in digital is what people were already doing in film. And so my style often has that street feel: gritty, black and white, shoot from the hip, etc.
I like the tension between the dark, the mid, and the light. That's why shooting in the middle of the day doesn't work well: there's no context between shadows, depth of field, or anything like that. And it's why it's great to shoot in the morning or night. Or to shoot with lights where you can control your own environment and make it look how you'd like it to look.
If you break it down, photography is just about capturing the light. The photos that look really great aren't just because of the person or object. It's the feel where the whole environment is jumping around.
For portrait photography, you look at somebody's face, and it tells a story without a lot of background. You can make up your own story or read their face and get a better feel for what they're into or what their story is. I used to volunteer at a Boys and Girls club in East Oakland and would take a lot of pictures of the kids. It was fun for them to see that photography was more than just pictures of them. The pictures were a piece of them that was art that you could discuss. Once you get past, "That's a really cool picture of me," you can bridge the gap with "What do you think of it? How does it make you feel? "
In writing, they say some of the best work is stolen from other people. But I do a lot of research on what others have done for my type of shot because I want it to be different. So, even though I mostly sit and create the shot in my mind, I spend about 10-15% of my time on research, but I try to stick pretty closely to what my vision is for what I want to achieve.
As time goes on you think, "I really like it when I take this kind of photo." But then the problem is "well, how did I take that photo?" Over more shoots, you not only start to develop the style that you wanted but also start thinking does this photo perpetuates my style in the way that I want it to? Does it box me in? I think your style has to be organic and grow.
Commercially speaking, I'm not sure if I'm there yet. Artistically speaking, you just keep on putting one foot in front of the other. I don't like to be too introspective about my old work. But my wife is pretty honest about if my stuff is looking good or bad and can point out: "This is portfolio worthy. That's portfolio worthy."
I wake up and I'm really excited to be doing what I am. Ok, sometimes, I don't wake up because I've been up all night worrying about my career, but you can design your own destiny. You've just got to get up and walk out the door and keep plugging away.
One time, I did a documentary project on crab fishermen, in the middle of October and November at the end of the season. I was driving out to the coast every day and had all of these feelers out, and there was nothing. I just remember coming home every night, saying that this wasn't going to work and each day was getting closer and closer to the deadline.
I finally found a guy from my high school days whose family had been in the crab business. He connected me with some fishermen and I talked with them for a couple of hours, got on the boat, and actually got a lot of good photos at the last minute. When you're at that point of despair, and you have one push left in you, that's usually the push that works. When I used to shoot with film, it inevitably would be the first and last photos that would be awesome. It wasn't the other frames where you'd put all this thought worrying about the lighting and getting everything just right. Instinctively, you just have to make the camera be an extension of yourself and just let go and do it. There are lessons in just waking up early and fulfilling your commitments – even if you think things are going to be bad. Often I thought "things are going to be horrible" and some of my best work has come out of that.
You can't always wait for someone to give you an ok or wait for an easier shot either. You have to get creative and make it happen. I wanted to do a fly fishing shot once, and there was this big no trespassing sign on this waterway underneath a bridge. I don't want to condone breaking the law, but the scene just looked great with this perfect sunset.
So, we jumped over the fence and ran down there. But as we walked across the hard-caked mud to the location, we sunk into a lagoon as I was carrying all this equipment. It wasn't a waterway at all. It was more like a cesspool at the end of the lagoon with all of these flies, little crabs, and mosquitoes. Some of these shots look so beautiful, but you don't see all these horrible things that the photographer sees and what he had to do to get there.
But the exhilarating bit is when you spend 10 hours just getting all dirty and stuff and then you load your photos into your computer and you can see right away: "I got it."
With a background in journalism, I feel comfortable talking with people. I think there's a lot of distrust out there because everybody has a camera. And a lot of people are malicious in how they use the images. I think it's your obligation as a photographer to be honest about what you're doing. Once you convey that, then people say, "Oh, I'd love to have my picture taken".
When I was riding with the Healdsburg police department to do a piece on service dogs, the police chief said he wanted a series of photos to put up in the lobby. They really opened their doors for this project, and allowed me to go on ride-alongs with police. And I really wanted to look professional (Luckily, you look like an official photojournalist with your Lowepro S&F Series gear!).
But I went to a scene where there was all of these firemen were walking around, and when I walk past the scene tape with the police officer, a fireman says "did you get the call on the radio? Are you with the press?" I could see the firemen turning their backs to me and covering the scene.
And I said "No, I'm with Officer Close here. I'm doing a project with these guys." Then they loosened up and said "ohhhh...well...do you want to take some pictures of firemen?" And now he's sucking in his gut as all of his buddies come over, and I got to take a photo of them.
I look at photos from 20 years ago, and photographers had access to everything. You'd see just magnificent photos from that whole generation that I don't think you could get today because that line of trust has been broken so much in the last 10-15 years. That makes your job a lot harder when you need 10-15 calls even for minor jobs to get on the inside. You just have to be as honest and genuine as you can and talk to your potential subjects about what you're doing.
Even if I only have 20 minutes for a shoot, I try to spend 10 minutes talking to people before I take a photo. People start to relax when you've laid out who you are and what you have in common.
A lot of times, you'll get naturals at being in front of the camera. But others can be really nervous, so a lot of it comes down to hands-on directing. If you can talk to people, and make the environment pleasant, taking the photo is secondary. Instead of just telling them to smile, you might say "Smile like Will Ferrell". Give your subjects some context.
Photography can be like golf. There's this fallacy where people think if you have all this new and expensive gear, your game automatically will improve. While I would love to have all sorts of gear, it's probably not going to make my photos that much better – except for lenses. If you get too carried away, you can just spend all your money on equipment without learning your gear. I can't do that this early in my career.
For example, even if you start with one lens that you really like and it's adequate, it forces you to learn that lens inside and out. The 30D with the kit lens and the 50mm is all I used for a while because it's all I had. Now when I put on a 50mm, I know how to use it forwards and backwards. That being said, I do try to put a portion of what I make on a shoot (on a good day, 15-20%) back into my equipment.
There's something to be said for the reason you took the photo in the first place: to show something different. The issue isn't what different equipment could I have used to make this photo different. The issue is what point of view do I need to make this shot different.
For instance, I'm just getting into shooting sports photography, and when I went to the US Open, there were 20 photographers there with their $10K lenses. There's no use competing with them for a close-up shot because I can't get that same shot. So why not look for something that they aren't shooting? So, I took these wide-angle photos with these huge cypress trees shadowing this little golfer next to them.
When I first got my Magnum 200 AW, I thought it was a video bag, but now I love it as a portable studio. I used to stick everything in two or three backpacks. But I can carry it all now with just this bag.
Customizing it with the movable dividers is half the fun of the bag. One camera body is smaller? I can move it over. I have my slots for my pocket wizards. I love being able to have the two bodies in the "right place" to free up a slot in the middle. The mesh zipper bags let me see where everything is and the All Weather Cover is always there if the weather turns bad.
I keep all my adapters in the side pockets. The memory card pouch which is great – I can take it out, and it doubles as place to stick my wallet and smartphone. I have these clips that I stick on the outside. I "blinged" up the bag's strap with a red, white, and blue lapel pin from my grandfather. My stand fits nicely in the side straps. As a bonus, even after using the product for a month, I'll open a zipper and find some new area and think, "I never even knew this was here"!
My lighting style is really simple: two or three light setups with some diffusers to pull out the highlights and de-saturate the mids. The power sources are these Paul C Buff battery packs that I use to power my monolights. They can fit in the Magnum 200 AW in the front or side pockets which is great because they give you eight hours of shooting time. You can plug two lights into it, and the recycle time is pretty good. Before that, I had to use five extension cords or one of those Honda generators which are like the size of a car engine. Now, I can go anywhere. I can put everything in my bag, and I only just need to carry the light on my own.
"Whatever you do, just try anything."
I wish I could have gone to school and gotten a degree in accounting, done that for four years and saved up to have the financial stability to go into photography later. But I didn't. My grandpa used to say that if you enjoy what you're doing, you're not working a day in your life. Whatever your passion is, just try it and stick with it, and don't quit after the first sign of rain. Once you get older, you realize that if you can ride the roller coaster and hang on long enough, a lot of cool things can happen and you can have a lot of fun. Ninety percent of making it is just getting to the shoot. Once you get in the car and get there, things just sort of work out.
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