Thursday, January 24, 2013

Slaughterhouse at Night

The stench hits you before you reach Greeley, CO, and when you arrive in town it’s overpowering. It’s the smell of animal slaughter. 

I was in Greeley for a photography job, and to my delight I met Monte Black- a fifty-year-old cowboy turned dancer from Wyoming. We went for a late night drive, and we discovered smoke emanating from behind the fortressed gates of the slaughterhouse. 

I needed to get closer, so we walked right up to the barbed wire fence, ignoring the "No Trespassing" sign. We had to work quickly before security arrived. Monte started improvising.

This last pose struck a cord with me. Monte looked like a rancher reaching through the ashes of the suffering animals towards Heaven, begging for forgiveness. Now we just had to wait for the smoke to thicken. We didn't wait long.

As Monte held his pose, I watched the putrid smoke create beauty around him. I’ve shot in many conditions over the years, and nothing has compared to the penetrating odor of death. If I close my eyes, I can still taste it in my mouth. 

After ten minutes, we got the image that was selected for the "Grieving" chapter of Dancers Among Us: 

As quickly as it came, the smoke disappeared. 

I went back to my hotel and took a thirty minute shower, but there is no soap that cleans where the smell was trapped- beneath my skin. 

The next day I was still mournful, so I decided to capture another melancholy photo. I asked Monte and his wife, Christy (also a dancer), to bring their baby to a desolate train yard. I wanted an image of a mother struggling to remain strong despite many setbacks. Monte played the role of the disconnected husband. 

Sometimes the process is painful but the result is thrilling. That's how I feel about these images. Thank you to Monte, Christy, and Pamela Bob (my friend and collaborator) for helping me tell these sad stories with dignity.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

I'm a Selfish Fu*ker

"Let's just take a few quick shots and see what we get."

Famous last words.

Dancer Marissa Quimby and I were caught driving in a rare and record-breaking Seattle blizzard. The roads were impossible to manage, so we pulled over next to this sign.

Given the way Marissa was dressed, the location seemed perfect for a Dancers Among Us photo, but what could she possibly do in these conditions? My hands were barely functioning after two minutes, so I couldn't imagine her legs were particularly warmed up. She looked frozen solid.

So I did what any purely selfish individual would do- I ignored her discomfort and suggested a standing leap! I asked Marissa to jump like she was running into the mission for safety from the cold. Her first jump mimicked her standing position.

Her crossed arms closed her off a bit, so she put her hands in the sweatshirt instead. Minutes later, the heavens opened up. After twenty-five jumps, we had our shot.

Here is the photo that ended up in the Dancers Among Us "Grieving" chapter, titled, "Out in the Cold":

Remember what I said about being selfish? Well, that charming little quality of mine was in full force. Though I had an amazing photo, and Marissa had escaped injury and frostbite, and we were both freezing and soaking wet, and my hands were barely working anymore, and it was almost impossible to focus through the snow, and the viewfinder kept steaming up, I said my favorite five words: 

"Let's try a few more."

Marissa did another 110 jumps. I believe she would have kept going, but my hands gave out before her legs did. Given the conditions, it's amazing how many shots I love. Two of my very favorite images came at the end:

This week I am offering a 16x20" print of "Out in the Cold" for $75, and all the proceeds will go to benefit K.I.D.S (Kids In Distressed Situations). Maybe I'm not completely selfish. 

To help warm a child this winter, purchase your print here:

Monday, January 21, 2013

Martin Luther King, Through a Child's Eyes

"Daddy, want to play Martin Luther King with me?"

My seven-year-old son, Hudson, had just returned from his first grade class, where he had learned about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. He wanted to act out the story. He had a toy plane set up as a bus, and he was lining up Playmobil figurines to represent the passengers. There was a solitary black woman sitting among the white figurines.

A police officer figurine walked on to the bus. "You have to stand up. This bus is for white people only. Oh, you won't move? Okay, you're in jail."

I interrupted his game. "Hudson, why do you think he did that?"

He looked at me blankly. "I don't know."

He returned to his game. I went into the kitchen. When I came back, Martin Luther King had been shot. A crowd had gathered, and Hudson was playing all the roles.

"What happened?"

"A bad man shot him."


"Because he thought everyone should be the same and that made the bad man angry."

Hudson stopped playing suddenly and looked up at me. "They caught the bad guy, right Daddy? Is he in jail? Why was he so angry? Why did he kill Martin Luther King? He didn't do anything bad."

I realized in that moment how difficult it is to explain prejudice; it's a foreign concept to an innocent mind. I looked down at this gruesome scenario he had created, and saw the confusion in his eyes, and I had no words of reassurance.

"I honestly don't know, Hudson."

His eyes brightened suddenly. "I want to be a leader, too. Just like Martin Luther King. I can help people, too."

My heart swelled, not with parental pride but with the humility of seeing humanity at its best. There is a famous quote by Bansky: "They say you die twice. One time when the breath leaves your body, and a second time when somebody says your name for the last time." In this way, heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr. will never die.

"After" in the Grieving chapter of Dancers Among Us
featuring Chloe Crade at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, IL

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Mad Men Among Us

Dancers Among Us is all about exaggerating reality to fantastical extremes. Usually I have to rely on my imagination, but when I decided to shoot a Mad Men inspired DAU photo this week, there was no shortage of visual inspiration.

Dancers Sara Antkowiak and Karl Maier perfectly inhabited the roles of Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Pete (Vincent Karthelser). Take a look at how reality becomes fantasy, which then becomes exaggerated fantasy.


(Vincent and Elisabeth)

(Sara and Karl)



A big thank you to Dancer Among Us Marcella Guarino and her fiancee, Greg Hymowitz, for allowing us access to Entrust Capital's stunning offices (and associates) in the Seagram Building. I could have looked for months and never found a more perfect location (by the way, that's not fake scotch in their glasses- only the best for the boys at Entrust!). 

Keeping with the Mad Men theme, I took another shot titled, "Office Romance," which explores what happens in this room once everyone leaves. You can expect to see it around Valentine's Day :)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Photoshop is for Wimps

Recently, I did a series of radio interviews and one question was consistent (and an unintentional compliment): "Are these images digitally altered?" (One radio host- Kim Carson of WTRV-FM in Grand Rapids, MI- tweeted the next day, "@jordanmatter: I had people write me to say they couldn't believe it was NOT Photoshopped.") The "No Photoshopping" disclaimer on the copyright page of Dancers Among Us did little to assuage everyone's doubts.

So, in my final interview, I tried to be a little more direct: "Photoshop is for wimps," I said flatly. Perhaps not the best choice of words, but they got my point. And apparently some angry emails from outraged photographers as well.

The photo that most of the hosts mentioned with disbelief is this one of Marissa Labog in Santa Monica, CA:

People had no clue how she got up there, so everyone assumed it was manipulated. The downside to all the technological advances is that we know anything is possible, and we've lost our innocence. Many people regard contemporary photography with cynicism. 

Below is a series of photos to show the process of getting this shot. She didn't hang from the sign, and she didn't jump up fifteen feet. Marissa was tossed in the air and then caught by two dancers posing as passers-by: Nick Factoran (the thrower in the red shirt) and Jones Welsh (the catcher in the white shirt). This is a trick I wanted to shoot for years, and I finally found the dancers able to do it. 

It took us about an hour to practice, set-up, adjust positions, gather people, and avoid the police. The key was for Marissa to effortlessly fly above the crowd like a seagull without Nick and Jones looking culpable. Finally, on the last frame, we got it before they dropped her!

Over the years I've written blogs about other images that people have doubted. Here are a couple of my favorites:

There are oodles more photos that may test your doubts. Feel free to email me at and I'll tell you how I did it (or you can just read the back of the book!). 

Click on the cover to buy a copy of the New York Times bestseller Dancers Among Us: