A consistent contributor, with work including candid street images, landscapes and macro nature photography, Greg Keating is our second photographer profile for Southern California Moments. Looking at his images, it’s no surprise that Greg’s day job is as an architect – his photographs sport a precise composition and often incorporate shallow depths of field and razor-sharp subjects. But we’ll let Greg, and his images, speak for themselves.
1) How and why did you get into photography?
I think the first time I tried “making” any image was in the summer of 1986, when I was futzing around with my dad’s old 8mm movie camera in a naive attempt to make stop-motion animation films. I’d just seen “Transformers – The Movie” which had recently hit the movieplexes, and squared-off robots were still all the rage. What’s a bored 10-year old on summer vacation in the hot climate of South Florida going to do?
That, and seeing all those “Gumby” reruns that WBFS TV-33 showed in Fort Lauderdale made me think I could try to capture or make something of my own, roughly in the same vein. Obviously I didn’t know what I was doing, and after partially melting a few Legos and Transformers with “special effects” like sparklers, and later seeing the crappy results that came from the whole setup, I gave up for a few years. What can I say, teenagers are fickle.
Later, around 1991, my dad let me borrow his old Bell & Howell Auto 35 (which was actually a Canon QL, a lamentably quirky and unlovable camera) and once I started changing dials and really understanding f/stops, shutter speed, ASA, film choice, I realized that there’s always enough light to capture something, even if humans’ eyes can barely see it. That’s where the still photography really started, for me.
2) Where and what do you like to photograph?
There are three places I’m really partial to, and for differing reasons. Living in Silver Lake on and off since the tail end of the ’90s, it’s been interesting to watch it morph from a number of things, one facet of which was the overtly gay population (and consequently accepting, permissive and generally inclusive atmosphere) into something that is entirely different today in my opinion. The Silver Lake of today can be better explained, and likely chronicled, by people a little bit younger than me. But, I still enjoy trudging around it and often carry something to mark the moments by. Sadly, I can no longer sport the spectacular, baroque coiffure that it seems your (not so) average Silver Lake male cultivates. As a conversation starter, all I’ve got is my antiquated medium-format film camera.
Then there’s Griffith Park/Observatory, which is a great equalizer in many ways. You want to live in the hills, you want to have a view, you want to be above the pollution and froth in the Los Angeles basin – you’ll pay for it in via an outsized rent or mortgage. But Griffith Park is pretty unique, as all of us Angelenos (and tourists!) can freely take a stroll up there and enjoy some of the most breathtaking vistas you can get of the basin, day or night. There are probably better places to get imagery of the SGV and SFV, but I like the “money shots” of the basin that the Observatory grounds, and Dante’s View afford. During the “clear epoch” that is winter evenings, I zip up there on my motorcycle about once a week, for the preferential parking and great photographic vistas, mostly around twilight.
Lastly, there’s Downtown Los Angeles, and I write Downtown with a capital “D.” There’s always something going on there, there always has been. The first time I got lost there was in the fall of 1994 while wandering around trolling for an “RTD” bus to get me back to USC. Having grown up in suburban South Florida, it was then I really realized this city of Los Angeles, though a little decrepit in places, was truly “big time.” I don’t get “lost” there in the same vein like I did in the mid-’90s, as I geographically know it much better. Yet it’s still a great place to lose oneself in, nearly any time of the day or night. There are a million moments in every minute of every day, and Downtown Los Angeles provides those in spades. At least once every two weeks, my lunch hour consists of a photo stroll around the financial district or Broadway.
3) Who or what are your inspirations?
There are a couple, as I feel any artistic endeavor inevitably draws from multiple sources. This might mark me as hopelessly déclassé for some up-to-the-minute photographic cognoscenti, but I think Irving Penn created such clean, classic images that you rarely think “Mmm, that looks dated/stilted/cloyingly trendy.” I don’t photograph people in studio settings like he mostly did, but it’s the ethos of concept and control, and what he subsequently brought out of it, that I admire. Irving Penn was unfussy, in a fussy sort of way.
Then, there was a professor I had at USC, back when the School of Cinema still offered a still-photography degree. I took Marty Schapiro’s class, which was an eye-opener. He’d bring a fat red Sharpie to the lectures, and doodle on your prints so you could not only really see his comments, but also not re-submit the same print twice. He’d start positively, saying: “OK, good photograph. Now, how do we make it better? How do we go beyond being a monkey that merely points the camera and presses the shutter button?” Marty, if you ever read this, those few phrases stuck with me, and a lot of other impressionable kids at USC.
4) What do you photograph with?
Pretty much any 120 or 35mm format body and lens combo I can get my hands on, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t stoutly mention that I believe that film still has a place in this world, though it’s greatly diminished from a purely commercial standpoint. Without wading too far into the digital capture versus analog film debate, it all depends on what you want or need to capture. If you are freelancing a corporate party in your after-hours, for example, you’ll piss your earnings away shooting film, that’s for sure. There, digital is a no-brainer. But when I have more time, I still enjoy using film. To specifically answer the question, I’ll say that the most personally satisfying images these past few years have been taken with a medium-format rangefinder, the Mamiya 6. It’s a pretty spartan 6×6 (2-1/4) format camera that has fairly limited technical abilities when compared with just about anything dribbled out by the major imaging companies of today. But it’s medium format in a very small package, and has few vices. Complexity isn’t one of them, if you blow a shot with the Mamiya, it’s “squarely” your fault. I still chuckle, remembering when my niece wanted to “preview” the image on the back it, and all she got to see was the printed film memo tab torn from the box, reminding the user what’s actually loaded in the camera. Her brow furrowed in disappointment. She”ll be a fickle teenager before you know it; I’ll need to lend her a camera to get both ends of the circle to meet.
5) What’s one of your favorite images, and why?
That’s a very difficult question, as there are so many millions of established images out there. But if I had to single it down to just one, I’d probably get philosophical and nominate Joseph Niépce’s “View from the Window at Le Gras.” Of what could be considered the dawn of photography, this was the earliest surviving image that became popularized as such. It’s definitely the Alpha, the ur-photo from where it all springs. L.A. has a fascination with motion pictures, and they grew out of still imagery. Both are things that humans can relate to without even needing to speak any one particular language or another. Imagery is a means unto itself.
Every day of 2011, we’re featuring reader-submitted photos of Southern California Moments. Follow us on Twitter and visit the Southern California Moments homepage for more on this series.