Arash Afshar

Photographer, Host of Burner Podcast and Founder of Justified Hype

Sam Q_16

I read that in a blog years ago and couldn’t unread it.

Like many young and tortured artists, I had this idea in my head that once I “make it” I’d be able to create whatever I fancy and those three words were a disruptive stone someone casually tossed into the pond that was my understanding of life and art. Looking at the word through this new lens helped me get a better grasp of why some creations just work and some don’t. How some artists and evolving works of art seem to counterintuitively deteriorate.

I don’t remember if the blog I was reading actually was about film director, Michael Bay, or if my brain made the connection on it’s own after reading it, but the progression of his films are a great example. Over years of conversations, I’ve come to accept the “are you serious” side-eye I get for saying this: Michael Bay’s first ever feature film, Bad Boys, was what made me what to make movies. Up until that 119 minutes in that that half-empty movie theater in that triplex in Fashion Valley Mall in 1995, my days of avoiding middle school bullies were spent almost entirely populated by daydreams of someday working as a comic book artist. Specifically for Wildstorm Studios under my hero, Jim Lee.

Michael Bay’s Hip-hop infused orange and teal teenage boy’s dream of Miami, where people just stepping out of cars look extra epic, completely dominated my imagination for the next few years. In the director’s commentary, Bay shares his adventures in budget restrictions and his frustrations working with local film crews. Bad Boys was originally written for Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz so a lot of the shooting script and dialogue was created on the fly with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. The Porche Smith drives in the film was Michael Bay’s own (oh the humanity). Like every artist, there is a lot of stuff Bay nitpicks that you and I would’ve never noticed. Twenty five years and 15-ish movies later I think it remains one of his top three films. After Bad Boys was The Rock, then Armageddon, then Pearl Harbor and so on. Michael Bay’s spectacular imagery still makes me want to make movies, but an argument could made that there’s a strong correlation between the increasing size of Bay’s budgets and the decreasing creativity in his films.

Our most interesting ideas flourish when we’re facing restrictions.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is illegal to show a man and a woman embrace and yet Iranian cinema yields internationally beloved films about love and relationships that transcend culture through the use of dialogue and creative storytelling. The most memorable scene in Raiders of the Lost Arch was when Indiana Jones simply opts to shoot a showy swordsman, which was a solution they came up with to deal with the fact that Harrison Ford wasn’t feeling well (which you can totally see on screen) and they were behind shooting schedule. Jaws originally intended to feature the shark more prominently but the animatronic technology just wasn’t particularly good so Stephen Spielberg got a lot more creative with when we actually got to see the shark. These were the stories I thought of when, for the creation of my second ever music video back in my 20s, the only equipment I had access to were my collaborators’ little Sony Handycam and a plastic tripod. Armed with only enough knowledge to utilize about 15% of a pirated editing suite, we spent a day recording multiple rap performances in front of a warehouse gate while I stood next to the camera which I lightly banged with a screwdriver handle on every kick and snare, creating a very interesting effect which many thought was done in editing. Contrast and limitations are often where the most interesting ideas are born.

I have an impressive portfolio of photography covering the public sector. When I ran into some of my shots of the East Village Block Party in an ad in Locale Magazine, it reminded me that my photos have been on bus stops around the county and billboards at the airport. On the northern dockside of the Port of San Diego Cruise Ship Terminal, you can see giant wall-sized posters of my photos of public art around the bay. Due to the nature of the kinds of gigs I’ve had with local government and nonprofits and the campaigns I’ve shot for, if you live in San Diego there’s like a 95% chance you’ve seen my photos at some point. It was an amazing run but what I’ve always felt more drawn to is an amalgamation of portraiture and fashion photography. After leaving my position as the Port of San Diego’s resident photographer, I began squeezing in a couple of styled portrait photoshoots every week in order to sharpen the saw and build a portfolio for the direction I wanted to take my work in.

When I shared the phrase freedom inhibits creativity with my friend and mentor, Neil Shigley, he scrunched his mouth and replied, “freedom can inhibit creativity.” I agree. In fact, I’d been kicking around how I could rephrase it with a more optimistic angle so I could incorporate the lesson into the creative collective I founded (restrictions seed creativity?) but I haven’t come up with anything that rolls off the tongue as easily. Regardless, the essence of this mantra is what I always go back to when faced with any roadblock. When the world went into lockdown for Covid-19, I was able to very quickly accept it as another wonderful opportunity the universe has manifested for us to expand as humans, as a society and as creators.

I couldn’t keep going out and shooting.

But what could I do with the terabytes of RAW files I already had sitting there? When we hit a wall I see an opportunity for a mural. I christened the lemonade recipe I came up with as #quarantrilogy. A daily creative practice to push me out of my comfort zone which would have the following restrictions:

  1. I would develop three portraits a day in black and white.
  2. All three would need to be from the same photoshoot and of the same subject/model.
  3. The images selected could not be ones already used elsewhere.
  4. Using a slight pose shift was cheating. The goal was to dive in to the stuff that the model or I may have not have even marked as maybes.
  5. All three would need to be identically cropped and framed in white. So if I really really liked a specific landscape shot of Kennos, the other two would need to either be matching landscape shots or I’d crop all three to portrait 5x7s. The identically cropped and presented images.
  6. Each image should tell it’s own story rather than splitting a single image or story into three. (I considered the possibility that I’m creating triptychs but ultimately went with trilogies because reasons.)
  7. The final images are to be shared on Instagram, which serves as my personal R&D feed. (I’ll get into the importance of releasing work in to the wild on a future post.)

It really didn’t take long for the restrictions to yield creative breakthroughs.

I loved the images accompanied with this post featuring DJ and Yogi Gina Calderoni, which was a collaboration with makeup artist, Nicole Aguiar. As I write this, it occurs to me that this shoot, itself, was another great example of the freedom inhibits creativity mantra.

Balboa Park in absolutely beautiful. Balboa Park is one of my favorite places on the planet. Balboa Park is one of the top three places I miss the most during this lockdown. This is not a jab at all the photographers doing amazing work there: Balboa Park is the most overshot location in San Diego city and county. I’ve lost count of how many times Balboa Park has been suggested to me as a location and I’ve tactfully suggested an alternative. Gina and I had been attempting to coordinate a shoot day for a couple months and it felt as if the universe was not willing to let it happen. A couple of days prior to our desired shoot day, Gina felt an intuitive poke to poke me and communicate she’s willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen, which sparked a fire in me to poke Nicole and see if I can move anything else around. Nicole teaches makeup and had a couple of students with her on that day for a field trip so the only way our three schedules could align would be if we met in Balboa Park.

Ha! Ok, message received.

So we met at Balboa Park at 3pm on a Wednesday, enough time or makeup before Golden Hour. Nicole’s students were pretty excited to serve as assistants. I did my best to shoot areas and angles I’d never seen before and it has ended up as one of my favorite photoshoot experiences ever.

Returning to these set of images and looking at them with my new black and white focused eyes brought to the surface some images I’d quickly dismissed with the much more conservative eye I’d viewed them with in the past. I’ve been loving the intensity of the black and white imagery from previous Quarantrilogy photos and I discovered that working with no color has helped me focus more on light and shadows. The photo selection process was always the part I dreaded. But now, after two years of no longer feeling the restrictions of corporate branding standards, this process has become fun, liberating and (dare I say it) creative.

Here’s where that story about my dreams of being a comic book artist comes full circle.

As I played around with all these gorgeous black and white shots of Gina, it suddenly hit me: what if I channel my comic book artist roots? What if I start by staying focused on creating the best possible black and white image (like line and ink) and then add the colors, hue by hue? That revelation thanks to my self-imposed Covid-19 restrictions resulted in my staying up till 3am and feeling 20lbs lifted from my shoulders. That feeling is when I know I’ve made a creative breakthrough.

I see the world a bit like a comic book. I see layers of skylines a bit like something you’d see in Anime. It’s possible that that’s as manifestation of my dyslexia. My depth perception is shit which has made parallel parking a challenge on many occasions. It makes complete sense that this approach feels right. When we’re in the midst of the creative process, how it feels is everything. It needs to be fun and when it’s not, that little spark that makes someone’s style feel interesting and unique suffers. It is not certain that this will be my approach forever, of course. Artists go through phases and I’m excited about starting more portraits in black and white and seeing where they take me. It’s each new chapter that kickstarts our excitement to create again, after we’ve become stale. Feeling stale, funny enough, usually happens the moment we and our audiences feel comfortable. As soon as we’ve got it figured out we’re bored. This is why the creative types usually don’t do well with regular schedules. We love life because of the contrast we experience, not in-spite of it. Maybe the whole tortured artist thing is what happens when we get a little too caught up in chasing that high.

May your means remain forever just a few steps behind the expanding boundaries of your imagination.

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