We’re often told as adults that the best way to learn is through play. In play we are free to explore, experiment, and create as we want to; pulling styles and inspirations from where we want to. For Brooklyn-based photographer Patrick Raitor, this freedom to play has evolved into an exploration of the spaces between subject and styles in the focus of his lens. Between his social media accounts The Modern Gypsy and The Slippery Shutter, Patrick documents work in fashion, lifestyle, and travel photography.
In the same breath, while play is the best way to learn, the contributions of more formal means of education are still invaluable. Classes, courses, and workshops can offer lessons and techniques that might’ve taken much longer to pick up or learn on our own, if at all. This brings up an interesting question, however one whose answer is opaque at best. Where do play and formal instruction fit together in learning and the creative process?
I sat down with Patrick to learn more about his journey as a photographer and his perspective on learning while playing.
James G: Thank you for sitting down again. I know we’ve talked about this topic in some form before, and I’m happy we found a chance to sit down and explore it a bit further.
Thank you for having me. I’m excited to get this on paper. I’ve been thinking about this for a while.
James G: When did you start photography and how did you pick it up initially?
I started, I would say, 6th grade? I think this was right around the time I got my first skateboard. I spent a lot of time at the skatepark, and some of my friends were super talented. Eventually I thought “Man this is really cool!” and I wanted to take photos of it. And this was long before camera phones. Or maybe it was around the birth of the first camera phone?
So I think I started grabbing my Mom’s digital camera that she used for work. And it kind of just took off from there. Then around 8th grade I started getting a little more intense with my thought process behind it.
James G: What was that thought process with what you were shooting? What were you looking for?
A lot of it was influenced by Thrasher Magazine, Slap, and like Transworld Surfing and Snowboarding. So either really, really long telephoto shots from the beach to a surfer; or in our case since we were skateboarding it was super low and super wide. And there would be a lot of perspective distortion on the outside of the lens. It was still kind of trailing off from 90s skateboarding. That was a serious vibe as far as what it did to influence how I looked at everything. And then everything else was just kind of luck until I figured out how I wanted to articulate the rest of my image.
James G: So like a lot of, uhh, fisheye.. wide lens shots?
Very. Super low. Super wide. Very in-your-face.
We also found out early on that the closer you were and the lower you were, the bigger everything looked. So we’d shoot that way thinking “Ohh man we look so cool right now!”
James G: Did you continue to shoot throughout High School and College?
High School was a step in the right direction in terms of something on the professional side. I upgraded to my first DSLR. You know when the first time you seriously start to consider a hobby, everything is still pretty entry-level for the most part. And in the realm of photography everything gets pretty expensive pretty quick. So this was the first step in the professional direction. And I was really excited about it. I shot pretty much everything I could in High School.
College was better. I found more people in the same likeness, and the people who were still snowboarding and skateboarding were much better at it. So at that point our skill levels were still parallel, but we were much better at our craft which was exciting. It made everything more exciting. They were doing big jumps, big rails… things that in some sense had very serious consequence, and I had to put myself in the middle of these guys. Their energy made me want to get to capture them in their best light. So it all kind of started to tighten up in terms of achieving what I wanted to.
And on top of that, you can make more money in college. Like you can work more than in High School… in between classes. So pretty soon I had enough money to upgrade my gear to actual professional-grade gear. Things that they were shooting the cover of magazines with.
So then I was thinking “If they can do it, I can do it.” There was nothing holding me back other than sheer experience at that point.
James G: Did you take any classes on photography in that period through High School and College? Either through school or online. Or was it all building off of experimenting and playing with the camera?
Everything until college was self-taught… until a point. There was no Youtube, or if there was it wasn’t the same Youtube that we have today. The community was much smaller and no one was doing anything other than for pure pleasure or entertainment. So there weren’t any tutorials.
Now today when software comes out and I need to learn something, I run right to Youtube University and I’m like “Let’s figure this out the good old fashioned way.”
There was one class in the 6th grade, and it was taught by the woodshop teacher, who was delightful in all technical terms. He taught photography in the same way you would teach woodshop. It was very very technical. In High School, we had one class on photoshop.
James G: So it was mostly learning photography as you shot skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing?
In college I took one formal class on studio photography, and it didn’t really teach me anything I already didn’t know. It was almost exclusively to get my GPA up.
But it was also the first time I’d ever had the opportunity to have a formal education. So I went into it with a lot of experience, but I was also making some silly mistakes that were quickly corrected by the teacher. He’d suggest little things… “Well, you know, instead of doing this with your ISO you could do this with your F-stop and you’ll get a different result.” But really XYZ things. And so there were a few hurdles that I stumbled on in the past that I found out later through this course. It did remedy an issue or two.
James G: Following college you shifted from shooting extreme sports to portrait photography. How did that transition come about? And were there things that you were able to pull from your experience shooting snowboarding or skateboarding to working in a studio?
Um certainly I think so. I think angles are really important, and foregrounds and backgrounds. I’ve seen a lot of great skate shots and there are certain things that are in the foreground and the background that absolutely ruin it despite good lighting. I have a hard time looking past it and some of the composition. I think “This could have been a great shot, if you would’ve done XYZ thing.”
In a more classical sense, I think its composition and learning about how lines and shadows affect where your eyes go. And I think you’d learn these things either way. I just learned it in a different arena. It’s all photography, it’s just your subject now may be a model in a studio as opposed to a skateboarder at the park. The principles are the same, your subject matter changes.
James G: As you’ve transitioned to photography as a full time profession, and have begun to shoot different styles have you looked for more formal education on your own?
There’s so many good sources on YouTube and people that have high-quality classes. There as well as other independent sites. But I think I do one webinar or something like that once every few months. And these can be on new software.
Or at some point I’ll think to myself ‘My retouching in this software can be a bit sharper.’ Then I’ll go in and learn new tech, because technology for not only cameras but the software to edit your photos is constantly changing and evolving.
That is also really cool to see because now it takes a couple clicks to set something up as opposed to half an hour.. There’s still so much art involved in those processes, it just takes less time to get there. So yea I take as many classes as I can that I find applicable to what I’m working on.
James G: Looking at it from that lens, where once you started taking courses and knowing what you already did and all of the experience you had in photography up until that point… Were there points where you thought “Oh I already know this” or “I wish I had learned that earlier?”
How did that perspective shape your outlook on taking photography classes or lessons or Youtube videos?
I guess there are two parallels there. Or two ideas that parallel each other. I went to a state school and had to take gen-eds. It was two years of ‘take a bunch of classes and figure out what you want to do.’ But at the time I was thinking ‘I know what I want to do. Or at least I think I know what I want to do.’ So I didn’t appreciate the run-around of ‘Check all this out!’ I didn’t need to know calculus, I wanted to spend more time in the studio.
So comparing that to my friends who are photographers and who went to art school; they had a more stream-lined education. They got to take different classes that applied to what they wanted to do. And I’m sure there were a ton in there that they thought were kind of silly. But I think no matter which route you take, whether it’s self-education or a fine art school you’re going to find some things there that you think “I didn’t need to learn this, but I appreciate it.”
In terms of taking (photography) classes, it was really reassuring to know that ‘Hey, I’m barking up the right tree! No one told me this and I found my way there on my own.’ But that also kind of begs the question – How much time did I have to spend figuring this out as opposed to someone telling me this right away? So it’s a bit of a tossup.
At the end of the day, two different paths end up at the same point in the end. They’re just two different routes and both are completely fine. One is just a little more direct than the other.
James G: Yea. One might be a photography professor telling you ‘This is what aperture is!’ And another one is.. you know..
Do this. Don’t do this.
And then I’m over here messing around for two months saying ‘This isn’t working!’
I always saw art school as like a short cut. But my thought process usually is ‘give me what I need to know.’ But then it’s like ‘What do I need to know?’ That is the point of going out and going to school is figuring out what you need to know.
James G: That’s interesting, that perspective on it. Being able to practice something and do something because you love it and then getting to a class and thinking “All right. I already know some of this because I’ve learned it on my own. Because I just love it.” Through the process of doing something that you love you learned this, and then finding out later that this something is widely taught. You just so happened to stumble upon it. But at the same time that process can lead to a lot of stumbling around things a teacher or class might have taught straight away.
Looking at it from the opposite side; are there things that you learned on your own that you’re not sure you would have learned if you did go the route of a photography curriculum or through an art school?
I certainly think so, but it’s hard to give a totally transparent answer without having been to an art school or knowing what someone who has been to art school has learned.
I thought all of my advertising classes were actually extremely helpful. From them I learned how to shift my perspective to one where I’m still pitching ideas and things to clients, but I’m doing so in a totally different way with the same principles. I can execute them in a way that makes more sense to me. Like looking at spatial awareness, for example, or just object proximity, and some other processes I learned in advertising like how to set up a scene, or analyzing what makes an ad good. Because some images are inherently easier to look at than others… I’m still trying to articulate that…
James G: No these are just… thoughts to explore.
And for how much I’ve thought about it I still don’t really have a clean answer because there are so many variables. But ultimately I think nothing taught me more than carrying my camera everywhere.
If I went to the skate park, it came with me. I’d always make sure to get my shots out of the way, and then I’d skateboard. When I would go to the hill, and I grew up in Minnesota so we don’t have mountains, but we have a lot of terrain parks, it came with me. And in college when I had more gear my friends would help me take things up chair lifts because it would take two or three trips.
James G: What were you lugging? Like camera, tripod, the whole nine yards?
It’d be the whole works; two different strobes off-camera, two heavy duty tripods, case of beer to hold them down.
I was so lucky that all of my friends were so supportive. It wouldn’t have been possible, or would have been a lot harder without them. And on top of that, making sure that you’re putting the shooting first instead of, in this case, snowboarding. I wanted to be doing that, but the true learning was going out and spending two or three hours shooting until my hands were numb. And then being like ‘All right how much do I have left in my fingers and toes? How much snowboarding can I get done today?’
James G: Like ‘Will I still be able to feel my hands going up the tow rope after this?’
Exactly, but that’s what made it so fun. You always kind of got a gnarly factor for the filmer because you’re doing a full day of hiking up and down the hill getting spots, sprinting back and forth, resetting lights, and charging batteries, etc. And then when you start riding after shooting, you start thinking about hitting those features.
There’ve been times where I take like two or three hits on something and I get an idea about another way to shoot it because now I’m doing it. The rider’s perspective. ‘Let’s try this from, not like a low and super wide frame, but let’s do it through a telephoto and get like some people in the chairlift.’ And then have the shoot between two people in a chairlift while the rider is in the middle hitting a feature.
So you’re thinking in so many different ways when you’re engaged in the sport. You’re seeing how you want to be shot and then you can employ that on the other end.
James G: So being able to shoot on the hill, and then also being the subject and look at the camera from that way, you got to learn as well.
In, and this is me trying to put all of the dots together, shooting you get to learn like angles and where to set up the camera and how to shoot, either as the photographer or the subject. It’s like knowing where to be with the camera. And the classroom is more the conceptual. This is what a focal point is and this is how you zoom and out.
And you need both. Because at the end of the day, if it’s not a teacher telling you, you’re looking at things like the cover of Transworld Snowboarding. That’s your teacher. Either you’re in a classroom or you’re sitting on a buddies couch watching a snowboard movie and thinking ‘Oh this is how he’s doing it in this situation. How can I do that, but kind of make it my own?’ They’re both teachers, one’s just a little more informal.
I think everyone learns in different environments differently. So there’s so many different learning styles. There’s certain classes I excel at when I can sit down and watch a lecture. I’m like ‘Oh let me make some notes.’ Give it to me so black and white that I can’t misinterpret it. And other times I’m like ‘Put it in my hand and let me fail a bunch and then come back and tell me what I did wrong.’ So it kind of boils down to how you want to take that information in.
James G: With failing… and let me try to articulate this thought here… sometimes you have to take a camera and fail a bunch of times before you succeed. Like take a hundred bad photos before you get the one you want.
With progressing and failing, and with learning and growing what are you looking for in a shoot now? And were there some specific ‘failures’ along the way that taught you now what to look for?
Failure is so weird. I mean like… I don’t particularly think of it this way simply because you pose the question.
Every shoot I go to I want ideally four to seven individual shots that say something to me. Not in the same place. They usually have a different ‘vibe’, and I’m just going to say vibe and the reader and you can figure out that throughout the rest of the interview. It’s not just location or lighting. There’s a lot of things going on. But I go through film pretty quickly. I had a shoot the other day and in two hours I think I ripped through 1600 frames. I have a pretty heavy finger so when it goes I geek out and like hearing that shutter slap.
James G: Was that the inspiration for your Instagram account The Slippery Shutter?
Oh that was simply because I would hit too many happy hours and I’d run around taking photos and my finger would get a little loose and be slippery and I’d start slamming the shutter.
James G: That might go in.
Cause you know I’d run to the village and hit a martini bar and run around and take some photos and follow the light and think about what I want to shoot next, and pretty soon we’d be ending and then I’d have another martini and call it a day…
But with ‘failures,’ we have a quantifiable amount of them in every shoot. If I’m picking four to seven, I might initially start out and make my selects out of 1600 images. The first round I cut it to 30 images. Then I’ll go through and I’ll eliminate the ones that are similar. ‘These ones are similar, this one is stronger.’
So out of all these 1600, I think I’m going to keep maybe four to seven or ten to twelve. The rest aren’t failures, per se, but the winners are so more prevalent.
James G: The ones that don’t make it might be the ones that you knew what you wanted from the shot, but the final thing didn’t turn out to be what you wanted in the shot?
Yea. You missed the moment by a fraction of a second. And those are where you have a lot of the conceptual likeness… It almost boils down to a miscommunication; your concept is strong, your light can be good, but if you’re missing some other technical fundamentals there’s going to be some miscommunication. In my eyes.
But yea there are a lot of failures that aren’t just quantifiable. I mean, I’ll go in with a concept to do something and then after the shoot I think ‘Man, I did this all backwards.’ And then you scrap the shoot and try again. It’s just part of learning.
James G: I’m guessing many of the readers here will probably know you through your photography as the Modern Gypsy. Your other account is the Slippery Shutter. What is the motivation behind the photos in The Slippery Shutter?
That’s more soul. Those are the photos that I think ‘These are for me.’ I don’t have anyone to impress. It’s just because I think a moment is pretty. Like a hat on a couch in a sunbeam with maybe some weird pattern on the couch. It’s things I see and think ‘I don’t know, this makes my eyes happy.’
James G: Between The Modern Gypsy and The Slippery Shutter are there similar ideas you have in mind.. or concepts or themes when you are shooting for each?
That’s a good question. With the Modern Gypsy.. It’s ages old. I took it so seriously, and I still do, but it’s more a different type of eye candy. It’s like pop music eye candy. It just kind of plays on the radio, but hopefully they’re hits in a way. You’re hoping that they are.
And then The Slippery Shutter is just a little bit more for me. It’s like an unreleased acoustic album that you did on your own. And you think ‘This isn’t for you. I did this because I wanted to.’ And even if I don’t release this album I still love it for me. I think The Slippery Shutter is a lot more intimate for me. It’s actually kind of interesting that I’m unpacking this now, because I put a lot more of myself into those images than I do anything else.
James G: You’re not shooting anyone in particular or a job or clients, It’s just shooting something that catches your eye?
Yea and with that, since it is all film it can take me like a week to run through a roll. And I rarely leave the house without my camera. So those shots if I see something and say ‘Oh the sun is almost there.’ for example, I’ll wait there, you know, for a half an hour, forty minutes until things line up.
With the Modern Gypsy it may be like ‘Well, we have two hours.’ and then I have an hour to get to another shoot somewhere else. So I don’t have that 40 minutes to sit around and figure things out, you know. You kind of have to, not force, but woo the moment. Because you don’t want everyone hanging around for 40 minutes while you say ‘The light will be great soon.’
James G: I imagine a client probably isn’t going to want to pay to sit around while you say ‘Just wait until the sun crosses that building.’ Like, let’s get it done.
I guess if anything, The Slippery Shutter is just patience. And patience isn’t my strong suit. That is the best visual explanation of me having patience.
James G: This is New York. It’s probably the hardest thing to be.
That’s why I always bring a book, and then usually there is a martini involved. So I’ll wait 40 minutes and read a couple chapters. In a way, that is kind of the best part because that’s when you let everything so down. In the best way. Because this city does rush a lot.
James G: I guess in those instances when you let it slow down, you can observe and appreciate more moments, and in there you can see more things that may capture your eye.
Yea and you never know. Something may pop without you realizing it and you think ‘Oh dude this was such a great happenstance!’ This moment just popped up. There it is. And you would have never been there otherwise. It’s a great way to just lay off the gas and just coast for a minute.
James G: Where do both play and learning through classes fit into your photography today?
I’ve been doing a lot of Youtube University as of the past year because I’ve been stuck inside New York. It’s been a pretty interesting environment to be in. I’ve also been buying a lot of photo books of photographers that are more on the fine arts side.
There are things that I would have looked at in Middle School or High School and thought ‘Okay.. It’s a photo of a tree. Where is the action?’ And now, I guess I’ve been looking at more established individuals and trying to find beauty in everyday things or places that are almost like ‘ugly.’ And really thinking that there is some beauty there and it’s so easy to gloss over it. That was actually what kind of inspired the Slippery Shutter.
I’ll ask friends that I look up to as photographers ‘Who is someone I should know, in the world of photography?’ And they’ll get back to me with ‘Oh these guys are really great.’ or ‘I know you like shooting with this film stock. This guy likes doing it too and his photos might be up your alley.’ And so I’ll buy these books and live them and breathe them with my coffee in the morning for an hour, if I can afford it. And over the course of the year I think I’ve come out with a lot. My wife is always like “Another one?”
But now that you have the technical knowledge you can start conceptualizing your own ideas, and looking into the fine art you start to say ‘Oh this is the next level.’
James G: At that point it’s really just the viewer’s interpretation of the art.
Definitely. But I mean at the end of the day there is a lot of fine art out, and you don’t have to spend your entire life trying to unpack it to appreciate it. But the more you look at it, and the more you subject yourself to different influences, then that starts to change how you shoot. Or at least how I shoot.
For example there was a photo I was looking at the other day and thinking ‘Oh man. This guy made a crooked telephone pole in Joshua Tree look pretty.’ Something that I would’ve driven past and thought ‘This makes no sense.’ Or like I wouldn’t have even thought that this made no sense. And now I drive past those things and think ‘That would’ve been a great photo.’
James G: When we were talking about taking a minute to slow down and appreciate the moment at hand and find beauty in that moment by just relaxing… it’s like those moments where it’s a light pole in Joshua Tree. That might be something we drive by because we want to get to the next spot or where the tour book says we should go see. And we actually stop and think “How the hell did that light pole actually get there. Like why is it there? Why is it still there?”
Like is no one questioning why there is just one? Where’s the rest of them?
James G: I think all this ties into the last question really nicely. Where do you want to go next now that you are sort of exploring different branches of photography and the world is opening up again?
I’m excited to travel again. I know that’s such a generic answer for the time and place that we are in, but I haven’t left New York in over a year.
I’ve found a lot of beauty in some pretty raunchy places, so learning how to slow myself down and employing that into new locations is going to be really interesting. Wild places are always wild for a reason, but finding the little things inside those little moments is going to be really cool. Without this year and this gap I don’t think I would’ve had that, so almost like this gap year of getting to dive into different books that I would have probably never gotten to has been almost a blessing in a way.
There was a lot of learning done this year and I can’t say I was thankful for not having the opportunity to leave, but if I have to make a positive out of it, that is it. To be forced to slow down; now I know how to do it on command. So now I can slow things down when I want to and not when the world wants me to.
You can see Patrick’s portfolio here.