War correspondent and wine connoisseur Gary Ayala talks to us about his history in photography and shares some stories and top tips from his extensive experience as a photographer.
RP: Hi Gary, please tell us a bit about yourself.
Hey, Rob. Firstly, Thank you for inviting me to actively participate in your blog. It is an honor.
About moi. I am an old fart, in my 60’s. I started in photography back in the dinosaur, film-only days. I was first introduced into photography by my Uncle, who taught me how to develop and print back when I was in grade school. He didn’t have a darkroom, so my cousin and I would foil up the window in a bathroom and at night convert it into a darkroom. By the sixth grade, I was completely smitten by photography, using all my paper route earnings for pawnshop camera gear and photographic consumables. My cousin and I spent a lot of time, especially summers, walking around Chino snapping away.
By the time I hit junior high (middle school), I was pretty proficient with a camera and started “stringing” for the local weekly paper, The Chino Champion. Mainly, grip & grins and local sports but soon the local daily’s started picking up my sports photos. Usually, I’d ride my bike to the event, shoot until it started getting dark, give my film to the reporter also attending the event (another stringer) and then peddling as fast as my little legs would go, race against the dark to get home.
The summer I turned 16 years old and able to drive, I worked on a dairy saving enough monies to purchase a car. Horrible smelly work and I didn’t drink milks for years, but now, with my Opel, I could be anywhere at any time and my assignments expanded in volume and scope.
Let’s just say there was a lot going on in my life and our (US) society which prompted me to make an early withdrawal of my college fund, steal an older brother’s ID and run off to Vietnam to cover he war. I spent a year there shooting largely for UPI (freelance) upon returning I went back to school and worked my way through college and beyond shooting for the Los Angeles Times and Orange County News.
In my later 30’s, I decided enough was enough and pursued a real job, making real money so I could have a real family and real life. (At least by ‘normal’ people’s standards.)
RP:what inspired you to become a photographer?
Life Magazine … David Douglas Duncan, Gordon Parks, Larry Burrows, et al. I am in awe of how they told a story with their camera … I wanted my photos to magical like theirs … I was and I am still in absolute wonder with the camera’s ability to freeze time, to stop a fraction of a second and preserve that very moment … for all time. Magic and power.
RP: what project are you working on right now?
LOL, no photographic projects in the hopper. But I have some ideas. I always see stories and projects everywhere. I just haven’t the time to execute them. I’ve started a new company and probably a second company within the next 30 days. These start-ups are sucking up my time and energy like a Black Hole. I have hard drives full of images stretching back years, all of which need processing, all of which are RAW. There is one project which I have set up, just need to get on it. I want to shoot this community boxing association located in a lower socio-economic city here in Southern California. I want to following and record the gym and the home life of the kids/participants. I also recently acquired a Fuji GX680III, a medium format film camera with tilts and swings. I am hoping to try out some landscape and urban architectural stuff. This would be all new to me as I’m more of a people type photographer. Dunno how well I’ll fare with stationary subjects. Along the same lines I also have picked up some Lee Filters for the digital camera. No time to try out either. But it was fun surfing the internet and putting together the GX680III system.
RP: Whats inspires your photography?
Part of my inspiration come from the Challenge that photography presents to me. I am very very competitive. I am driven to shoot a better image today than I took yesterday. Being a photojournalist, I am inspired by the story itself, the event and/or the people. I remember being on assignment in a pool with other journalists. Some journalists went out looking for stories and sometimes came back with nothing. A no-story operation they’d call it. Not me, everybody has a story, granted some are more interesting than others … but all of us, are a story worth repeating, worth shooting.
RP: What does photography mean to you?
Across the course of my life it meant different things … from job, creative release to hobby. But at a deeper level, photography for me has always been about seeing the world, literally and figuratively … photography is light … and light is life.
RP: What cameras did you shoot with and why?
I started out with my Uncle’s Mamiya Sekor slr. My first camera was a Yashica rangefinder without a meter. Man, I shot that thing until the wire connecting the aperture blades wore out. Looking into the lens you could see all the blades hanging down like broken, useless arms, shifting around inside the lens with every movement. But that camera taught me how to read light, how to set my exposure by eye. I instantly sucked up a Nikon F that I found in a pawnshop. Which, in and of itself, is a miracle considering the rarity of the F back then, especially since the pawnshop was in a backwater community far from Los Angeles. I built my skills on that camera, which just happened to be the camera of choice by photojournalists. What is interesting is that for three to four decades, every significant news event in the non-communist world, was captured by a Nikon. What a resume for Nikon. Similar to other photojournalists of my time, I used Nikon F’s, FTn’s, F2’s and F3’s across my career. They were all motorized and from the Arctic to Australia, they never mechanically failed me. Just to be different, I tried motorized Leica’s, for a spell, but the lack of long lenses made life difficult. For fun, I had a Hasselblad 500 C/M. When I started my family, I hung up my cameras. I only took them out for typical family snapshots.
Around the turn of the century, a friend convinced me to try an Oly 2000/2020. The shutter lag on those puppies drove me nuts. I cannot count the times I wanted to smash the camera into the street … repeatedly. The shutter lag turned me off to digital cameras until the same friend convinced me in 2005 to pick up a 20D. This was an epiphany. Raising the camera to my eye, releasing the shutter and hearing a nearly instantaneous 4FPS slap of the mirror … OMG … I was back. This was not a trivial ‘back’ … I was seriously back … all the decades of passion I had for photography, every single assignment I ever shot, the whole enchilada, all came rushing back to me in that moment, all those memories and emotions swelled up and swept over me like a tsunami. I never looked back. Next came a 5D and later 1Ds and best of all, all that is required to focus, is to press a silly little button.
I played with a GF1 and decided that small was fun. Over time, I pretty much shelved the Canons and now started shooting Oly EM-5’s then EM-1’s. Granted MFT is not FF, but it was okay, I was only shooting for myself. When I saw a Fuji XPro-1 on the shelf in my camera store, I was in love. It was so sexy, I felt compelled to purchased it immediately. I knew nothing about Fuji, but the XP1 made me feel as if I was back in school dating the cutest cheerleader. I just wanted to walk around with the camera hanging off my shoulder. (Yes, I am that shallow.) The fact, I later discovered, the camera took one hell of a photo was an additional plus. The gawd awful, dog AF of the XP1 caused me to examine my shooting skills and draw upon my old film days to anticipate the shot. The XP1 is a fraction of a second slower than a pro dSLR, but that fraction is a night and day difference. Unlike my 1Ds, I could no longer shoot with a reactionary eye, as in “Wow, look at that!” then boom, boom, boom, got it. With the XP1, I have to think and anticipate the shot, pre-position myself to where I think the peak of the action will be, wait for it … wait … then boom. The XP1 re-sharpened my old photo skills from my news, manual focus days. I’m now shooting with a pair of XT1’s and a X100S for just walking around. The XT1 has an AF equal to a dSLR, except it doesn’t track moving subjects. I like the distinctiveness of Fuji, the build, the slightly different look of a non-Bayer sensor image and the wonderful Fujinon lenses. I already have placed an order for the new XP2.
RP: Any anecdotes you can share?
I have stories, decades of stories. My website is here:www.garyayala.com If any photo peaks a question(s) … I have the answers.
RP: What are you looking for in a photo?
Every genre has different elements one looks for in order to determine success. For journalism it is all about communications. I was taught that there wasn’t any difference between the written word and the photograph. I look for good story telling with a lot of drama, timing is critical.
RP: Biggest regret relating to photography?
I dunno … as time goes by the shots I missed, or assignments I screwed up, become less important because I expect to do better, to capture the exceptional image, with my next shutter release. But, I do wish I had brought home copies of my work. When I was shooting news I didn’t care or thought about my personal history and never gave what I shot much merit. Consequently, I don’t have much to show for my years in news.
RP: Any closing comments?
Last week I spoke to a photography class at Whitney High School in Cerritos, California. This is the handout. All you guys know this stuff, but sometimes a reminder is useful.