James Comstock Interview

By SCSC President Philip Steinman

1) This is an exciting time for your stereo photography. Particularly with your success at the NSA Riverside exhibitions. Your shows "Orchid and other Floral Wonders" and "10 Years of Burning Man" earned you best new presenter and put you in the award arena with stereo hall of famer Robert Bloomberg and his wonderful (movie epic of a) show "Lost Temple of Angkor". What did you take away with you from that experience?

JC: Of anybody's work that I have seen over the years, as far as stereo shows go, Robert Bloomberg's has always impressed me immensely with its quality, variety, and humor. This year, I was quite blown away by 'Lost Temple of Angkor'. It was a great pleasure to see such a refined 3-D production; something one knows is a rare experience. One image from this show was entered in the Hollywood Exhibition this year. It certainly would have won a top award if I had been a judge. Oh wait, I think it did. Maybe 'Travel'. I already have a great affinity for the cultures of this area of the world. I love the architecture, art, music. For years, I have been planning a trip to Thailand and Bali. Angkor was on the list. Anyway, back to the question. Seeing Bloomberg's show and meeting him was the highlight of the conference for me. And finding him quite enjoyable, with a sense of humor I expected of him from his other work, plus a shared interest in music. It is always more rewarding to met someone whose work you admire when they have an opportunity to see your work as well (as long as they like it). It gives you the initial connections you need to get closer. Also at the show, I was impressed by the quality of the 3-D video projections. It has encouraged me to pursue some of my other projects. Coming long ago from a film background, I've always wanted to do 3-D in motion. But I was discouraged by the quality; at least, for someone who could not afford a 3-D Imax camera and theater. Or even one roll of its film.

2) You bring photographing flowers to a new level. How did you get interested in orchids?

JC:

I have always thought that the three main interests in my life have been art, science, and plants. I've never been able to limit myself to one or the other, especially to make a living. I have collected plants since I was probably 6 years old. I think I was doing photography by 12. I know I still have pictures of flowers I took while in junior high school. They have always been one of my loves, and one of my favorite photographic subjects. Over my lifetime, every interest, that I have had, has grown in scale. My interest in plants has grown to a large rare plant collection, a large plant breeding project of 17 years, and a landscape contracting business. My photography took me to film school, a film special effects business, still photography, and then 3-D photography. My plant breeding project (a plant called 'Clivia'), took me to UCI to meet Professor Harold Koopowitz, the founder of the arboretum there. He is one of the most respected names worldwide in horticultural circles, especially in orchids. He and I did a book together on Clivias, the plant I'm hybridizing. It came out in August from Timberpress. Harold has a huge greenhouse where he collects and hybridizes orchids. With his collection and his access to some of the finest collections in California, I have access to this incredible world of orchids, a plant family that comprises about 1/5 of all flowering plant species on the planet. Harold is editor of 'The Orchid Digest' for which I do much photography. Each issue now contains a 3-D page for free-viewing orchid pictures, just for fun. Not many of the readers can free-view, but those who can LOVE it. Duh! He and I are working on an orchid book for Timberpress, and we hope to do a 3-D orchid book someday. In the meantime, I have done some 3-D shows for a couple orchid conferences. When I started doing 3-D photography, one of my first shots was a flower close-up with a slide bar (actually I dragged my tripod across a piece of plywood with marks on it. I didn't know what a slide bar was). What delight to be able to capture the wonderful sculptural quality of a flower I had admired all my life, but whose beauty was only hinted at in a 2-D photo. I now shot many different kinds of flowers, including orchids. But orchids have evolved some of the most complex floral structures known. I find them fascinating, especially combined with the colors, textures, and patterns. Living art to my heart. But it is also fascinating to learn the ways the flower uses all these elements to succeed in getting pollinated, which is its goal, of course. In doing this photography, I get to combine these three interests of mine, science, art, and plants, together. It is very satisfying.

3) You have also done some fine nude photography as well and I was wondering if this experience helped you with photographing orchids? Was this just studio experience with lighting, or is there a Georgia O'Keefe influence here?

JC:

As soon as I could arrange it, I was doing my first nude photography in high school. All my early work with both flowers and nudes was done with natural light in natural settings. Depending on the type of photography you are doing, the human body or flowers can be considered the same subject (beauty of the natural world, is as good a label as any, if you need that). You get in close, see the curves, the textures, colors, flow, connections, space. Or I can do landscapes with human figures, or flowers. Then it can be something else. It's the relationship of all the elements. I like to doing lots of different kinds of photography. I've been doing it a long time. I don't like to be categorized as doing one type of photography. There is a lot of my work that I haven't done in 3-D. And a lot of my 3-D stuff that doesn't get shown at the club. As far as Georgia O'Keefe, I love her work. When I first saw it, I said, 'I'm there', in all humility, of course. Her work was a confirmation for me more than anything else.

4) With your orchids, what makes you focus on macro studio photography as opposed to seeing flowers in their natural habitat? Do you ever see a flower & want to take a picture of it where it is? Or do you always want to pick it, study it, light it, & put the Comstock signature on it?

JC:

Long ago, I realized that film does not photograph like my eye sees; nor does a lens see like my eye sees. Physically, it is not recording 'reality'. But then, the eye is limited too. It likewise does not see 'reality'. And then the brain interprets what info the eye delivers. And then the mind and heart(etc.) decide what they see. Or so, that's what I believe. When I decided this, I felt liberated. Why try to photograph 'reality' when you can't. So I decided to try to photograph these flowers the way my heart and spirit react to them. That's what one is doing when one shots a landscape; the way one frames and composes the image; waits for the right light or a car to pass or the wind to pause or a bird to enter the frame. Sure I will and do photograph flowers in a natural setting. But if I get close and inspired and transported, the flower is a world of its own. As a lover and student of natural light, I know how light can caress and entice the flower. This philosophy is important to me. But there are logistics involved here, too. Most of the flowers I photograph now are rare or exotic, meaning, in this case, not native to this area. An incredible orchid, grown in an ugly pot covered with algae, sitting on a galvanized wire bench, crammed together with a thousand other orchids in ugly pots, growing in a greenhouse that's designed for precise climate control and not the way light could be gently dappling the flower, whew, is not usually a very photogenic setting. I can't wait to get that plant out of there and home where I can lavish it with my lights. Also, my macro photography requires lighting for (usually) f22 lens settings. In other words, lots of light. If I was using natural light, f22 and macro settings would require very long exposures, which means wind would be a problem. There's always wind. And many orchids are like sails on long, thin stalks, swaying at the slightest breeze. And then, if you're using a slide bar, you have to get two shots exactly the same.

5) How do you light? How much time does it take?

JC:

Of course, this, to me, is the fun part.

Anyway, technically, it's a studio lighting system with 3 or 4 strobe head units. Each head unit can be altered to give a very directional, point source of light, or a very soft, diffused light, or anything in between. Each flower shot can incorporate one or all the lights, with any combination of light diffusions, depending on the effect I want. Many photographers find a simple light set up and light everything the same way. I like to study each flower and light it to bring out what I see in it. I treat each flower or flower cluster individually. Some want soft lighting, some want directional lighting, some both with a little hot spot to light up the center. I move the lights; I move the flower; I move the camera; I do it all again. It's a meditation. It can take 1 to 3 hour to set up a shot. I also do light painting with the flowers. That can take days.

6) Your 3D show is a like a museum exhibition of macro photography, but I was just wondering if you could have a non-macro image within a macro show? What would it be? What I'm really asking is how do you decide what to edit out of your shows (besides sub-par photos)? And what photo do you hesitatingly leave in, only to find out in front of your audience that it really works?

JC: Well, the 'focus' of this show (Orchids and other Floral Wonders) is to share this particular perspective on flowers. To put them 'in a light' that highlights their beauty on a very intimate level, not to explore their beauty in their natural environment or as an element in a larger landscape. Likewise, if I was trying to show an intimate moment between a mother and child, I would not have them seated 100 yards from me on the top row of a football bleacher. There are so many ways to photograph flowers; as many ways as people view them. Hopefully, this way helps people see them as more than colored blobs in the yard. And hopefully, that might get people to look closer at other things in life. And ultimately, just to look at all, which some people don't do very well. That is one of the uses of photography and art. I've done 3-D flower shows for different groups, and the shots I use change for each group. What I say changes as well. I've done shows for orchid people, for plants-in-general people, for photographers, for 3-D photographers, and just everyday people. They all seem to like it. And they all get something different from it, but something the same. It's fun to hear their responses.

7) On to Burning Man. Here you can't control these events/experiences in the same way you do your studio work with flowers? Is that why you like that so much?

JC: Sure, spontaneity is one of the most alluring qualities of Burning Man. It's exciting to see what the happenings around you inspire you to do; when they do; when you're both in tune. I love photographing people, especially people being creative and having fun. I can do candid stuff where they're not aware of me. Or I can interact with them and make photography part of the event. And that's just the beginning.

8) You were able to immerse yourself in the Burning Man experience, yet retain a distant dry witty anti-anthropological tone to your narration of the photographs that seems to bring the common person closer to the humor of the event. How did this come about?

JC: Yes. You have to be part of it to really photograph it. But balanced with an occasional detachment. And like much of the event, there is a strong sense of tongue-in-check. The attitude of the narration was something I wrestled with for a long time. I just couldn't do a 'straight' whatever; I don't know what that would be. It would seem so pretentious. Where would I begin. It's so vast, the event and the experience. And then, as I've said, I was doing all kinds of different photography; photo-journalism, portrait, humorous, political, philosophical, still life, interactive, landscape, documentary, abstract-experimental. All this reflects the event itself. Of course, I'm not thinking this as I'm shooting. I just shoot how I'm moved to shoot at the moment. But then you end up with a wide variety of shots. To give a straight description or explanation or whatever of each shot seemed unimaginable to me. So I did this parody of an anthropological study (I wouldn't call it anti-anthropological) which was obviously ridiculous but also obviously intentionally ridiculous. This had the effect, I hope, of emphasizing some quality in the image by pointing out its opposite. This way, I could make a comment about some aspect of the shot, on something other than an intellectual level. This technique lets the audience realize in his own head what's going on, rather than me telling them directly. It draws them in, hopefully.

9) I think this was very successful in bringing together that part of the audience that wouldn't go near the Burning Man experience themselves as well as those who now want to go after seeing your work. What is it about Burning Man that repels us and attracts us at the same time?

JC: Repelled, huh? Well, you may be asking the wrong person because I've been attracted to Burning Man from the moment I heard about it ten years ago, driving all by myself 14 hours into the middle of nowhere, when all my friends thought I was crazy. I don't know that I've recognized that people are repelled by it. I have seen people intimidated by it to the point where they have to find all kinds of rationalizations so they can handle it. I don't blame them. It is an intense experience. I think my show paints a very creative, free event. But my show is a real distillation with many things left out. I don't recommend Burning Man to many people. I even hesitate to show the slides because I think it gives just a side of what it is; I show what I like about it. I like the creative abundance and freedom. It is stimulating intellectually, emotionally, sexually, spiritually, artistically, humorously, politically. There is great diversity there. All this is exciting. But many people are intimidated by it. As I've said, I've only recommended a few of my friends to go. I don't think most people would really appreciate it. This kind of release is totally foreign, if not deliberately suppressed in many people.

10) Have you presented your 3D shows to non-3D crowds? How do they respond (and will they come to SCSC exhibitions)?

JC: Yes, as I've described earlier. I've done two shows at the Huntington Library, one at the L.A. Arboretum, one at the Atoni (sp?) Hotel for an Orchid conference, and one in South Africa at a Clivia (another plant) conference. I'm doing one in June for another orchid group. And I was asked to do one in New York for a World Orchid Conference.

11) You have successfully developed a vision of beauty in your orchid photography as well as your Burning Man experience. What advice would you give someone who has never put a show together, but wants to make their first show?

JC: Focus on what the show is about. Some people may be able to meander successfully all over the place. But clarity of vision helps answer a lot of questions about what direction to take, and what to include or exclude.

12) What's your favorite way to introduce someone to stereo photography?

JC: My 3-D viewer. Its intimate and startlingly clear. But I also love to project a private show. The viewer gives the clearest image. But the psychological effect of a huge projected image is stunning.

13) Favorite stereo viewer?

JC: I love my lighted H.de Wijs viewer.

14) Favorite stereo camera?

JC: I have a couple Realist cameras and an RBT. They each have their strengths and weaknesses. I can't say I love either of them (but you sure couldn't take them away from me!).

15) Most used film stock?

JC: Each film has its own characteristics that I would consider using depending on the purpose of the shot. But generally I use Fuji Provia F.

16) Favorite light?

JC: Probably about 4400 angstroms.

17) What future way of seeing stereo excites you most?

JC: I adore the quality of 3-D Imax. I can't image anything better unless they increased the frame rate. I fantasize about doing an Imax film. Most 3-D video at standard resolutions leaves much to be desired. But if someone developed a 3-D hi def system at an increased scan rate so there was no flicker. Hopefully that would also help with alternate fields problem with fast moving objects. My dream is for some 3-D Hi Def video glasses. Then there would be no dealing with the problems of alternate field or the ghosting of projection. All video glasses I've seen have very poor resolution. But I think they keep getting better. There's a new one on the market that I'm trying to find to test out. But what excites me the most are the claims of the new Foveon chip. I would love to shoot electronically, but film still surpasses digital for my purposes. The Foveon chip, a so-called analog electronic chip, may finally change that. It will affect both still and motion imagery.

18) What film do you wish was originally shot on 3D?

JC: If it were as easy to shot and project a 3-D movie as it is a 2-D movie, no one would ask this question. 3-D is how we see, and everyone would prefer everything in 3-D if it wasn't such a technical challenge. Someday , I hope that will happen. When sound or color was introduced in film, the first films that employed them were extravaganzas designed to show off the technology. But now all films (with obvious exceptions) have color and sound. Do we say,' Well, did that film really need to be shot in color,' just because the color was not an obvious star of the film. No, because color is how we see and we expect to see films that way. Most 3-D films feel they have to justify the fact that they were shot that way. If every shot in the film was unexciting as far as a 3-D composition goes, people would say, 'What's the point?' But until 3-D becomes so commonplace that we don't think about it, we won't be able to appreciate the power 3-D has in ANY setting, even the most subtle. We are used to dramatic 3-D compositions in our club competitions and the shows we see. I generally select my slides for show or competitions based on their impact. But I also shoot quite ordinary or pastoral or empty that are still more powerfully conveyed in 3-D. But they would never win a competition. The power of 3-D to me is to increase the sense of presence to the viewer. And that power would help any film- from a small budget drama to a special effects ridden extravaganza. I would love to see a classic Bergman film in 3-D (except it's black and white too) just as I would love to see 'Lord of the Rings'. People love 3-D. Some are just stymied by the technology. Imagine if color was a hassle to produce. We would probably all be members of the Color Club of Southern California, because that's the way we see!

19) What filmmaker would you most like to see make a 3D movie?

JC: Well, the answer to the previous question is wishful thinking. More pragmatically, (as if they would really do it) I think Terry Gilliam or the Coen Brothers would have fun in 3-D.

20) What moment hooked you on 3D photography? (The moment that said, I gotta do this)

JC: Our club, for years, used to have a booth with a carousel 3-D viewer in it at the L.A. County Fair in the photography building. I used to go to the fair just to see that viewer every year. I took the club's card and said someday I would go. It took 15 years. I kept that card in my wallet. And one day I found a realist at a camera shop, bought it, and decided now I better go to that club. The one image I remember from the carousel viewer was a cactus in flower. It's clarity was stunning, better than I could see it with my naked eyes. It was probably an Earl Colgan picture. But even then I thought the lighting could be better. At the Riverside Conference in July, I came upon a Viewmaster reel vender. By chance, I found the one VM reel I remember from my childhood, Santa and his reindeer. The image was of Santa and his crew flying in the sky, trying to get out of the way of a passenger airliner bearing down on them. This wacky, surreal scene had such a sense of presence. What effect could it have had on such a young, developing mind?