Off the Grid: Portraits of Sustainable Lives

Eric Valli captures those who live light on the earth


A lot of what we think of as environmentalism is simply the result of consumer manipulation. Nothing sells quite like making people feel good about themselves, so buyers continue to purchase the "green" version of products that enable inherently unsustainable habits. Like unbleached paper towels or new hemp clothes or the smartphone made from recycled materials. These things won't actually save us. It doesn't matter if the products we buy are organic if we're still manufacturing, transporting and consuming them at the same rate as ever.

There are environmentalists who remember to bring their canvas shopping bags to Whole Foods and then there are environmentalists who quit America and live off the land. The latter are people who realize that no matter how conscientious their consumer choices may be, the consumerist system itself is the ticking time bomb that will ultimately lead to the destruction of the living world.

So they quit. They unplug. They sell their belongings, they terminate their phone contracts. They break their leases and abandon their cars. They retreat to the parts of the country that remain untouched by highways and chain stores. They build a system of being from the ground up. They understand that the only way to fix the problem is to stop being part of the problem. So they leave. 

Eric Valli photographs these people. He follows them to their homes--old cabins lit by oil lamps and heated by stoves or simply camps set up in the woods every night. He accompanies them on hunts and fishing trips. He watches the way they live off the land around them. He lives with them. He documents it.

The idea of broadcasting a simple, disconnected life over the internet with the help of a cutting-edge camera carries its share of problems, but Valli's quiet, respectful portraits don't seem to interfere with the lives their subjects have chosen. Valli stands in as a reverent eye, showing us images of those people who have shunned the convoluted exchange of the capitalist system in favor of bartering directly with the land. The images are beautiful. What's more, they are necessary. We need them to kindle that little fire inside of us that begs us to want less. We need them to ensure that spark actually leads us to reduce our consumption, not just consume differently according to another's desire for wealth. We need to step out from the desperate grappling for remaining resources and learn to let the land take care of us. We see now that it's possible. We just have to be strong enough to follow it.

Kodak to Cease Camera Production

Inventors of the digital camera step back from their creation

You can't always finish what you started. Even those responsible for some of the most important inventions of our time must sometimes back away and let somebody else take over their creations instead. Sometimes, other people can do what you do better than you. At least, that's the situation that the Eastman Kodak Company has just found itself in the midst of. The company will stop selling its own digital cameras, even though it was the one to invent them way back in 1975. 

Kodak has been facing bankruptcy for a while now, even with their newer technological innovations such as cameras with wi-fi and touch-screens built in. In order to cut costs, the company will no longer manufacture handheld cameras, pocket video cameras, or digital picture frames. It will attempt to license its brand to other makers of cameras in place of producing its own products. 

Even though the folks at Kodak invented the digital camera as we know it now, the film and camera company failed to take off with its own line of modern cameras quickly enough to keep up with the consumer market. Other companies have improved upon the concept to such a degree that Kodak was more or less left in the dust. 

And let's face it; unless you're an actual photographer, or at least trying to be one, you're probably not going to be buying a standalone digital camera. The low-end point-and-shoot was a hot commodity four or five years ago, but it's on its way out. When you've got a camera as good as any cheap standalone embedded in the telephone you carry around in your pocket, you're not going to want to double up on your electronics load. Smartphone snapshots do just as well as any. The only real digital camera market left in the world is the DSLR scene, which will likely thrive for a long time. You can still buy the little rectangular point-and-shooters, but they're definitely going the way of the iPod Classic: single-purpose dead weight in a world of multitaskers.

So what's next for the company that started it all? Kodak says that it'll focus its energies on the desktop printer business. They'll also keep offering retail photo printing via their kiosks and labs. You might not be able to take photos with a real Kodak device in the near future, but you'll still be able to print them with one. 

Photo Project Ideas for the New Year

A photo blog that I used to follow on a fairly regular basis (Photojojo) has now delivered to its audience a newsletter format. The content is still just as engaging as it was when it was a simple photography blog.

The creators of Photojojo have also opened up a store of the most bizarre and odd photography gadgets that you could find anywhere on the web. They’re also planning to create a new online store front called, Material and have quite the promising job offer for anyone interested.

Recently, Photojojo featured an article dedicated to photo projects suggested for the New Year. One of my favorites is the daily photo concept idea of taking photos from where you’re standing. This idea may be great, specifically for someone who loves the idea of taking photos and sharing their photography regularly, but doesn’t enjoy having pictures of them taken.

Looking up the hashtag #fromwhereistand will produce results where you can view collections of photos people have submitted showing their feet. Whatever else may be in the picture could possibly allude to where the picture was snapped.

Perhaps you enjoy going to the same picnic table under the same oak tree for lunch every day of the work week. The shade there allows the sun to shine through the many branches of that oak directly on your smiling cheekbones, it’s perfect. Why not start showing daily photographic evidence of your favorite chill out spot at work? That’s exactly what Paul Octavius did in his series: “Same Hill, Different Day”.

You can read more about these ideas and get inspiration for your own concepts and designs here.


Photographs Evoke Chinese Ink Drawings

Mimicking the old with the new


Some artists spend years upon years practicing their hand at photorealism. It takes a lot of effort to get a painting or drawing to look exactly like the scene it's recreating, and while most photorealistic renderings don't necessarily add a lot to the art scene, they are impressive for their technical feat alone. But an equally impressive and most curious feat is to do the reverse; to create the illusion of hand-rendering in a photograph. Don Hong-Oai spent his career doing just that.

Hong-Oai's photographs could easily be mistaken for Chinese ink drawings. The black and red lettering along their sides automatically make the viewer think of those delicately drawn landscapes seen in museums of ancient art. But these images are of scenes really captured with a real camera in real time. They're not the result of a series of afternoons spent reflecting on the outdoors, but the result of a button pressed in a single moment (and a fair amount of post-processing). Philosophically, the two artistic processes are worlds apart, and yet the images they reap are nearly interchangeable. 

What does it mean, then, to manipulate the work of an instant to make it seem as though it took hours to create by hand? Perhaps Hong-Oai meant to begin a discourse on time and the evolution of the artistic process. Just because we can recreate scenes instantly doesn't mean we should. Perhaps technology has robbed us of something in exchange for ease of reproduction; maybe that quiet reflection required of tranquil ink drawings is something that we should try to approach again despite the temptations of instant communication. 

Remembering 2011

Photographically speaking, 2011 was a very destructive year, physically and emotionally. A Tsunami tore up Japan in March. Then, a little later in the year, protests broke out in Cairo, Egypt. Riots struck in London in August. While in September and October, Occupy protests broke out worldwide. Suddenly police were legally allowed to spray protesters when the FDA classified pepper spray as a vegetable.

Also, thanks to our ever increasing capacity for technology, Google street view was able to show a stark before picture to the aftermath of a tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri back in May. A month before, in April a tornado struck Concord, Alabama.

It was also a time for remembering and American pride. This year, we solemnly noted that it was the 10th year anniversary of 9/11. While in Norway, on July 22nd, folks gathered to remember the 93 victims of yet another terror bombing that occurred in the twin towers in downtown Oslo. On May 2nd, we got Osama Bin Laden. Back in June, in New York, same sex marriage was finally made legal.

This couple (pictured), photographed by Stan Honda, was the first same sex couple that was married at the City Clerk's office in Manhattan. You can view the entire collection of images that highlight events throughout the year here. Included in this collection is the bizarre image of a massive dust storm in July about to roll through Phoenix, Arizona. It literally looked like a Tsunami of dust, encompassing not merely low lying buildings, but towering over skyscrapers too.

Iconic Photographs

The Battle of Gettysburg- everyone remembers listening as their high school history teacher droned on and on about it. Yet, none of us were actually there, none of us can sympathize. Perhaps Timothy H. O’Sullivan may cause us to, with his photograph (pictured).

You can see the blood on the faces of the dead soldiers. In the background, you can see one of the victorious cavalry soldiers looming in the hot July heat. They’re standing guard, proudly atop their horse. Yet they are a mere shadow in this iconic photo. Viewing all this… you can imagine the blazing summer sun coursing through the veins of every soldier, dead or alive.

Now imagine living in the 19th century. This photo was your only chance to glimpse a war that raged on for merely three days. Many people were not able to view this picture for another 40 years until after it was taken by O’Sullivan. This marked the beginning of photo engraving and allowed this historical (a part of the American Civil War), very iconic photo to be mass produced.

This is merely one of 12 photos included in Swick’s list of 12 Of The Most Iconic Photographs Ever Taken. This is a widely varied collection. My description of my favorite photo of the dozen is merely the tip of the iceberg. View the complete article here. While these images are incredible, they are not for the faint of heart. If you are easily upset or become anxious while viewing disturbing imagery, I would suggest you do not click that link.

Absolutely Amazing Images Captured in 2011

National Geographic is having their annual photo contest that ends November 30th. The Atlantic’s In Focus column with Alan Taylor was able to get a sneak peek at submissions. Here you can view 45 of his favorites from the submissions that have been posted within the community. The photo contest runs under three different categories: People, Places and Nature.

This contest features some truly remarkable photo submissions. They run the gamut from natural weather phenomenon, such as an electrical storm at sunset in Death Valley to a capture of the breathtaking Temple eerily poking out through the shadows of the sun amidst a dust storm at the Burning Man festival this year. Then there’s the strange sight of gas bubbles trapped under a frozen lake bed in an arid part of the Canadian Rockies during the wintertime when the temperature is a frigid 30 degrees below Celsius.

Truly, this is a very aesthetic and varied collection of images. My favorite is probably submission number 8 (pictured). This strange sight was captured in Sindh, Pakistan, where in 2010 local flooding caused millions of spiders to take refuge in trees to escape the rising water. Since it took so long for the flood waters to recede, lots of trees in the area became suddenly cocooned in spider webs.

There is also a rare glimpse of a leopard at Yala National Park in Sri Lanka and then the ordinary (a chain link metal fence) becomes extraordinary looking at submission number 22.

This is proof that a photographer with a good eye can take a picture of absolutely anything and make it a quality picture, no matter the subject.

Detachable Phone Camera Lenses


Are you in that middle place between cell phone party shot snapper and arty DSLR-hauler? Not quite ready to commit to a camera and lens that cost you hundreds, but still want to take better than average photos? Photojojo might just have your fix. Their three cell phone lenses will transform your phone's camera into a tiny professional piece.

Most smartphone cameras boast pretty high megapixels as it stands, so really the only thing separating a phone camera from your average digital model is the size of the lens. These three easily attached lenses each give your phone a different photographic edge. You've got your wide angle/macro lens, which lets you take close-up shots with surprising levels of detail. You can get big, wide shots from far away or sneak up close to document the tinier things. The fisheye lens, meanwhile, will get you those trendy curved edges and distorted images that everybody seemed to be really excited about in the early '90s. The telephoto lens just enhances whatever zoom power you've already got by 2 for sneaky faraway shots. 

The lenses latch on to your phone with a magnetic ring, meaning they'll just click right on without any kind of installation hassle. I'm guessing they probably won't work too well if you've got a rubber backing or case on your phone, though, and I imagine they'd be pretty easy to knock off and drop if you're not careful. They're probably not the best for concert use. 

Still, they're awfully cheap when it comes to camera lenses, which tend to be enormous and expensive items. The telephoto and wide/macro lenses will set you back $20 each, while the fisheye runs $25. Or you can pick up all three at once in a $49 package deal. Whichever you buy, it'll come with a little key ring attachment so you can be sure to have your miniature pro lens with you at all times. 

While the lenses are made of quality glass and probably will enhance the already-decent quality of iPhone (or comparable) shots, they're not likely to magically transform a terrible cell phone camera into a great one. So if you're still rocking an old slider phone, these lenses might not be the best investment in the world. But if you want a more portable and less expensive way to get some solid shots onto your Instagram feed, these little add-ons might just do the trick. 



It might be wrong to categorize Microlawns as a photography blog. The text that accompanies each image makes up at least half the art of the series. But it's the images featured that unleash the floodgates of suburban ennui, the odd things we middle-class humans do to introduce living sparks into our mostly banal and uniform existences. 

The blog takes a sharp-edged sense of humor to its presentation. Each photo--taken by the author/photographer--features a tiny patch of grass in an otherwise concrete microlandscape. They've been dubbed "microlawns" and they're a somewhat confounding addition to the Californian scenery the creator captures. I mean, why allow a tiny trapezoid of crab grass to thrive in an otherwise lifeless patch of world? What aesthetic value does that speck of green bestow? If we're going for green, for thin amalgamations of nature in a modern locale, why not carve a whole garden into the pavement? Why keep it to a 3" by 5" of only grass?

But these are suburban standards, sewn into the grey as though we'd forget what plant life looked like without that small, unkempt reminder. Microlawns attaches itself to that absurd habit of ours and allows us to laugh at it with some truly biting prose. It carries the visual aesthetic of a hobby photography blog, but the subject matter and its accompanying texts elevate the site to a level of real satire and critique of contemporary American existence. These are our jungles, our plains, our ecosystems--sixteen square feet of grass, barely room enough to house a family of earthworms. What does that say about us? 

Cosplay Portraits from Comic-Con NY

It isn't Halloween yet, but the dedicated cosplayer needs no season to show off their stuff. Nerd conventions happen all year and the nerds of the world show up in full force to emulate their favorite characters. Geek culture is pretty widespread and inclusive; you'll see Star Wars characters and general steampunkers at comic conventions and characters that never made it off the page at video game gatherings. And of course, nerd groupings of all varieties and sizes are never without their zombie contingent. Portrait photographer Senen Llanos took the time to document some of the best outfits at New York's Comic-Con this weekend. The results are pretty spectacular.

I especially like that Llanos didn't just focus on only the most polished of costumes. Sure, a lot of people spend a lot of money to look exactly like a 3D rendering of their favorite game hero, but the rougher cuts bring a ton of personality to the scene, too. One of my favorite portraits took a little creative liberty with her character, arriving as a humanized GLaDOS from Portal. The game's infamous villain isn't human-shaped at all--she's more of a feminine HAL than anything--but no one could mistake this particular cosplayer for anything else. 

Llanos made sure to photograph all sorts of characters, too, from obscure game protagonists to Boba Fett to Captain America. He pulled them away from the buzz of the convention to isolate their image against a dark background. Most convention shots are pretty hectic so it's nice to see these cosplayers in quieter portraits. Be sure to check out the whole set over at Llanos's blog.