Favorite Clients from My First Small Business

Entrepreneurship, Media


While running my rental studio, Silver Street Studio in Houston, it was exciting to work with photographers and agencies of international renown, like Mary Ellen Mark and Mark Seliger, Art Department and Greenhouse Reps.  But it was a special pleasure to work with those photographers and crews that were at bottom simply great human beings.


I think immediately of Tony D’Orio, of Altoids fame.  (Note:  Tony’s photo used in the ad above was not shot in my studio).  How refreshing that, in a profession so rife with jealously guarded tricks of the trade, Tony instead offered a broad openness and generousness of spirit.  Over the course of a two-day shoot for McDonalds, he showed me a couple of studio equipment hacks that made my job easier and that would be enjoyed by other photographers in my studio for years to come.  For instance, he showed me how to switch out the hand-crank machine clamp of an Elinchrom Octabank–which have infamously weak grip—with the more robust clamp from a Matthews C-stand.




Lucky for me I like photographer Fulton Davenport as much as I do since he was perhaps our biggest repeat client over the years.  With his busy creative firm, PWL Studio, Fulton was shooting in our space practically every other week for years.  One of his specialties is product photography, which was also a specialty of ours.  Take a look at the photo above, of Fulton at work for a high-end antique shop client.  The tabletop set is comprised of expendables and hardware we kept in stock and offered at no extra charge.  Even more to the point of product photography was our studio’s unsurpassed natural light.  Heres Fulton on shooting day light in our space:

“I love the highly technical work, like photographing objects with intense detail, a la Irving Penn shooting for Saks Fifth Avenue.  You’d normally need (or have to build) a light tent.   But here, you’ve got such huge windows on north and south, the light is perfect.  Tents are used just to simulate this.”



Imageastronaut mailer sofa guy

One of my favorite people, photographers or not, is Justin Calhoun.  Justin brought us a big job one summer, and one could tell how much the crew liked working for him.  The makeup department, the photo assistants, even the kraft service people were obviously inspired to work hard for Justin, with smiles all around.  What you see here in the two photos above is a Polaroid test shot (the client wanted Justin to shoot film, not digital) and one of the direct mail pieces ultimately produced from the images.




Another of our busy-busy clients was Felix Sanchez.  Felix was one of the first to shoot in our studio in the early days, and he continued to bring interesting jobs into our space over the next seven years.  (He has his own beautiful new studio now.)  Before becoming a photographer Felix played in a touring Tejano band, so naturally he’s photographed many musicians throughout his career.  Early on with us, Felix was kind enough to help me assimilate the vast expanse that is studio equipment.  He’d report on all of his new experiences experimenting with lighting equipment.  I based many of my equipment acquisitions on Felix’s information.  The job in the photo above was for Walmart, for which Felix transformed our cold, empty space into a warm and cozy living room.  Go check out his handsome new website.


Prepaid Wireless: How to Save $800 This Year

Entrepreneurship, Media


Entrepreneurs are always looking for ways to economize.  I’ve recently found prepaid wireless to be a great source of savings.

A few months ago I left Verizon for Virgin Mobile, and I couldn’t be happier.  I was lucky a friend had persuaded me to give it a try.  Before then, prepaid mobile service wasn’t on my radar, at all.  Why is that?

For one thing, there’s the stigma.  I’d always thought of the prepaid market as being for the credit-challenged among us.  This understanding was accurate at one point.  Prepaid cell service began as a way for someone with bad credit or no credit to essentially put down a “deposit” (hence, pre-paying for service).  By contrast, if you were middle class and credit worthy, the major carriers trusted you enough to give you service and take your payment at month’s end (aka, “post-paid”), even gave you a free phone.  It’s a little-recognized symbol of socioeconomic status.  Even more to the point of stigma:  prepaid phone cards and disposable “burner” phones purchased in convenience stores were associated with drug dealers who needed untraceable hardware for illicit communications.

There is admittedly a somewhat sketchy feel to using prepaid service.  My experience is with Virgin Mobile (VM), but I imagine this applies to most of the prepaid sector.  VM clearly insulates itself behind the Internet, encouraging all customer contact to happen through their website.  And even on the website, there is no traditional “bill”– no “statement”, no calls log, and most importantly, no account number.  If you’re able to figure out how to get an actual human being on the phone at Virgin Mobile, you’ll find them seriously cagey upon you requesting your account number.  Ask them for your account number, and they ask you why you want it.  I guess most customers seek their account number when they’re jumping ship to another carrier (you need it to port your number to another carrier).  For my part, I wanted my account number to set up VM as a “payee” at my bank to schedule automatic monthly payments.  Guess what?  Virgin Mobile doesn’t deal with banks.  They only accept credit / debit cards or “Top Up” cards purchased at drugstores and big-box retailers.  They do not accept paper checks.  Nor can you register a bank account with them for electronic payments.  (Not that I would ever do that, but since when does a company not want your bank account info?)

So what convinced me to try them?

How about saving $70 every month?  Yep, my Verizon bill was $107 each month.  I’m now paying only $37 a month to Virgin Mobile.  Sure, this is for only 300 minutes.  But $107 only got me 450 minutes from Verizon.  And with VM I get unlimited texting and data.  My $107 with Verizon only gave me 4 gigs of data.

The unlimited data has been a big plus.  I now get to watch Netflix on my phone anytime I want, without worrying about my data plan.  With Verizon, that 4 gigs of data was good for only about eight episodes of “Breaking Bad.”  One caveat for heavy data users:   there have been reports of data “throttling”.  I have yet to experience this, but I’m actually not that heavy of a data user.

How do I manage with only 300 minutes on my plan?  The same way I managed with only 450 minutes on my Verizon plan:  I make most of my calls via the Internet.  I use an inexpensive ($5 one-time purchase) VoIP app called GrooveIP.  GrooveIP uses Google Voice to make and receive free calls over the Internet.  It works best over Wi-Fi and 4G, and it does work well enough over 3G, as well.  VoIP setup is somewhat complicated, but here’s how:  http://www.addictivetips.com/mobile/make-free-wi-fi-voip-voice-calls-with-android-guide/

I’ve definitely encountered some drawbacks.  Make special note of this one — although there are a number of BYOD (bring your own device) prepaid carriers, Virgin Mobile isn’t one of them.  You have to buy a Virgin Mobile phone, whose offerings are somewhat limited.  Better than in the past (they carry iPhones, now).  But still limited.  There’s no contract, so there’s no discount on any of the phones.  So I limited myself to a $200 phone budget.  I chose the Samsung Galaxy Reverb.

The Reverb was VM’s top-of-the-line smart phone a year ago (now $130).  It sports a great feature set; by comparison, my Verizon phone was the vaunted Motorola Razr, and the Reverb has every feature I ever used on my Razr.  But, like so many of the lower-cost Android phones, the Reverb has only 2 gigs of RAM memory, and this is the source of my one regret:  with such limited RAM, my Reverb slowed to a crawl once I loaded it up with apps.  Why not install the apps on the external SD card?  Current versions of android (all versions since Froyo 2.2) have allowed users to move apps from internal memory to the external SD card.  The only problem here is, in order for this work, the developer of the app must enable the app to run from the external SD card.  Most app developers have not taken the time to do this.

But, wait, there’s a solution.  It takes some doing.  And customer service certainly doesn’t endorse this since it is essentially a hack.  But here’s how to move almost any app to your external SD card:  http://www.bongizmo.com/blog/moving-all-android-apps-to-sdcard-apps2sd-froyo/  It’s worked great for me.  Now my phone has regained its zip and pizzazz.

So despite some drawbacks, if you’re pretty handy with cell phone configuration, and you don’t rely much on mobile carrier customer service, then going prepaid is not only doable.  It’s great.  What’s not great about saving $840 every year?

(PS:  What does the photo above have to do with prepaid wireless?  Not a thing.  I just think it’s hilarious to see people talking on phablets.)

Beer Roundup #3: Three Midwest Winter Seasonals

Food and Drink



Just a word about the scale of my ratings.  I use the weighted average scoring system developed by Beer Advocate, http://beeradvocate.com/help/index?topic=reviewing_beers .  Also, here’s how I translate my numeric ratings into actionable intelligence.

To Buy or Not to Buy?

1 = horrible
2 = bad
3 = average (many better beers out there, won’t buy this again)
4 = very good
4.5 = great
5 = rare best

New Glarus Thumbprint Winter Warmer

Rating:  4.25/5

Pours an orangey-copper into a tulip glass.  Two fingers of light white rocky head that soon breaks down, showing a faint haze.

The aroma is a bit tame.  Raisin and brown sugar, with wood and grass and metal barrel.

Momentarily sweet on the front end, but only for an instant.  Mild hop bitterness accompanies the sweetness through to the throat.  A little smoke.  Sugary dried fruit of the fruitcake variety, think maraschino cherry and fig.  The grassy hops ride the significant carbonation up into the sinuses.  No sign of the 9% alcohol anywhere.

Wish this had more body, though the refreshing carbonation has its own appeal.  Finishes super dry.

If you’re looking for a syrupy/spicy sweet winter warmer, look elsewhere.  This is all imperial Scotch Ale.  Yet a very New Glarus take on the Scotch Ale–crisp and refreshing, fruity, earthy, with a bit of hop bite and sharp mouthfeel that dries the style.  Oh, man, as it warms, it drifts deliciously closer to the center of the Scotch Ale tradition.

Alaskan Winter Ale, Alaskan Brewing Co.

Rating:  4.25/5

Had this as a 10 oz. chaser to an exceptional Bloody Mary at The Caribou (Madison).  Bright amber, with a small white head and serious lacing.

Knowing Alaskan for the syrupy greatness that is their Pilot Series barley wine, I predicted this winter warmer would have a sugary persona.  Boy, howdy. Low in alcohol (6.4% abv) for what I’m used to in old ales, the aroma is quite mild, more like an amber ale, without much by way of spice or hops.  Definitely bready and nutty, to be sure, just a bit quiet in the nose.

Surprisingly thick and creamy in body.  High sugar content sweetness, even for an old ale, without the leather or sand of others in the style, like North Coast Old Stock or Founders Curmudgeon, which I’m glad for.  Surprising sugar-citrus, sweet-ripe mandarin orange.  I’d say apricot, green grape, too.  Wasn’t expecting all the fruit.  No hops to speak of, though the sweetness comes in balance, so there must be some bitterness.

Totally satisfying, though doesn’t touch the outer realms of my favorite old ale, Bells Third Coast Olde Ale (arguably more of a barley wine, anyway).

Bells Winter White Ale

Rating:  4.14/5

Somewhat unfair to be drinking this after my favorite witbier of all time, Hitachino Nest White Ale. But what are you gonna do?

Pours a Hazy straw color, with a lemon juice look to it.  Fast-dissipating white head with fluffy bubbles.

An aroma instantly recognizable for the style, it’s spicy and yeasty in the nose, with some wet cardboard.  Green grapes, other indeterminate fresh fruits, maybe pear, maybe melon.

On the tongue it’s grass and white pepper, first. Coriander, awesome winter spice profile.

Eminently refreshing, yet with seasonal fruits, including tart apple and a hint of banana.  I like the spices, which are admittedly on the subtle side.  Plus the wheat and yeast of Belgian whites that come off as comforting old patterns.

Moderate carbonation keeps everything bright and sharp.

Have I mentioned how refreshing this is?  The complexity is all in the fruits, which may sadly overpower the spice.  Not quite on par with Allagash White, but close.


Media, Writing

ImageSorry its been a while since my last post.  Ive been busy working on a short story.  I thought I might post some of it here, but I’m lucky I didn’t:  I’ve just learned that doing so would disqualify the story from being published in any journal that asks for first-publication rights, which is pretty much all of them.


What am I, a child?

I’m watching the addictive anime series NANA, and I’m totally shocked with the turn the story has taken in ep. 16.  The episode begins with Nana’s/Hachi’s breakup with Shoji, which ought to have been the saddest, heaviest weight on the series, good for at least one or two whole episodes of delicious self-pity and navel-gazing.  But before the episode ends, we see the writers have dumped it instead for the intrigue and potential reunion of Nana and Ren.

I’m totally impressed with the provocation and propulsion of this unexpected, whiplash plot shift.  What’s even more impressive, though, is that the writers have gone against the grain here.  What I, and I suspect most of the audience, really wanted was more time for Hachi to grieve her breakup with Shoji.  But the writers decision to defuse the explosion of the breakup was the right choice, even though it goes against the audience’s wishes.

How could that be?  Aren’t writers bound by the pop-cultural imperative to “give the people what they want”?  How have they gone against this maxim without alienating the audience?

They’ve done it with character.  To move the plot in the direction of Nana + Ren, i.e., away from Hachi’s troubles, is a character-based move.  First of all, it’s a distraction, or a move of self-preservation.  Hachi’s situation is grave:  Shoji was her entire reason for moving to the big city, and he has dumped her.  Without Shoji, there’s nothing keeping her tethered.  She hates her job (which is as menial and dead-end as jobs get) and is on the verge of being fired from it.  She has also nearly estranged Nana, the only solid thing she has left.  In short, she’s on the verge of having to leave Tokyo, her dream of being a big-city girl in ruins.

Rather than facing down her troubles, she lets herself be distracted.  We know she’s a match-making schemer, so naturally she becomes obsessed with reuniting Nana and Ren.  She’s also a sucker for two birds, one stone opportunities.  Bird 1:  recouping her image in the eyes of Nana.  Bird 2:  forgetting how close to loneliness and financial desolation she has come.  In other words, it is a character-based move for the plot to take this turn.  It’s built into Hachi’s DNA.

(Side note:  even when it seems all the focus is on Nana, more than ever it is Hachi that’s steering this ship.)

At first I was disappointed with this plot twist.  I felt cheated.  I wanted more time to wallow in the gloom and self-loathing of Hachi finding Shoji with another woman.  It’s only in all this meta talk that I’m able to appreciate what the writers have achieved.  What they’ve given us is better than what I wanted.  Far better.  To wallow in the basest of emotions–it’s not unlike giving over to feelings of bigotry or directionless rage.  I thank the series writers for rescuing me from a downward spiral of weepy, woe-is-me bitterness.

But who could blame us for wanting self-indulgence?   It makes sense that people are addicted to melodrama.   On the one hand, it’s what a child would choose.  But on the other hand, we were all once children.  Picture me at six years old, walking home one morning after a sleepover, carrying a paper plate of cookies I’d helped bake the night before.  The plate folds and the cookies fall to the street.  Rather than pick up the several unbroken ones (i.e., counting losses and moving on), I weep bitterly for my loss and stamp them into the pavement.  I run the rest of the way home shrieking bloody murder.  At home in the kitchen with my parents, I’m inconsolable.  I say, I’ll never bake cookies again, never.  

It’s not about the lost cookies.   It’s about the caretaking I evoked by coming home a blubbery mess.  It felt good to have my parents cooing at me and petting my hair.  And I knew by instinct the melodrama I’d brought home would elicit that response from them.

Children are drama queens.  So are adults, when not on guard against it.  And when you’re watching a riveting dramatic series, you’re not on guard against anything.

What the audience would have chosen is vastly inferior to what the writers gave us.  Choosing self-pity — that would’ve been choosing the irrational, choosing stasis over progress.

In other words, it wouldn’t advance the story.  And if there’s one maxim that trumps giving the people what they want it is this:  The story must advance.  Anyone who has watched a great TV drama knows why this is.  There’s just too much story to tell.  The writers have no time to waste.

The writer knows this.  Good thing it’s the writer in charge of the script, not the audience.

In Defense of Miyazaki: Thoughts on WHISPER OF THE HEART

Media, Writing


I used to pooh-pooh the films of Hayao Miyazaki.  Back then I’d acknowledge them as technically brilliant, or that they were true achievements of cinematic vision.  But I used to feel they were soft, over-optimistic, naive, or lacking the grit and edge of realism.  By contrast, my touchstone for anime has always been Mamoru Oshii, of Ghost in the Shell fame.  Oshii says of Miyazaki, “His worlds have become just too nostalgic”, and, “[I]t is joyful, it’s eye candy and it is a pleasure to watch his movies, of course.  But . . . people don’t die [in his scenes of military battle, for example], so they are nice to watch but there is no realism”.

I’m usually right there chiming in with the naysayers about Miyazaki films (Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa…), that Miyazaki is the Disney of anime (or at least the Steven Spielberg, with all the predictably happy endings).  To begin with, I’m much more partial to anime stories of psychoanalytic self-loathing.  Filling out my Top 10 list are the self-hating anti-heroes of Neon Genesis Evangalion, Trigun, Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell II:  Innocence, and Barefoot Gen.

But all the while there have been exceptions to my rule.  I’ve fallen in love with anime that most Oshii fans would call sappy or sentimental, mushy or maudlin:  Fruits Basket, FLCL, Castle of Cagliostro, Please Save My Earth, Macross (Super Dimensional Fortress Macross),  Escaflowne, and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.  Some of these can be explained as “not inconsistent” by way of them being mad-cap, slapstick comedy, like Castle of Cagliostro, FLCL, and perhaps Macross.   But how do I explain all the dew-eyed idealism?

Am I going soft?  No, that can’t be it, not with apocalypse and earth-under-attack plots figuring so largely in all of them.  And it’s absolutely not the case that I’m merely lowering my standards of intellectual and conceptual challenge; I value these works so highly that I no longer talk about my “Top 10”, I now always name my Top 15 when discussing my favorites of all time.  So how does an otherwise orthodox Oshii fan like myself remain consistent and still keep The Girl Who Leapt Through Time on his Top List?

Although the film Whisper of the Heart does not make my Top 15, briefly discussing it here could go far in answering these questions.  Written by Miyazaki and produced at his Studio Ghibli, Whisper of the Heart (WOTH) features all the schmaltz of a Miyazaki film:  child protagonists and first love, idealism and nostalgia.  (The film recasts the musical juggernaut of nostalgia “Country Roads” into Japanese, changing the title phrase to “Concrete Roads” for the setting of suburban Tokyo.)  But unlike Miyazaki’s more famous films, WOTH is not a romanticized coming-of-age fantasy in which the protagonist must save the world.  Its hero is merely an adolescent suburban girl trying to find herself, while reacting to the attentions of her first suitor.

What might seem fantastic is the uber-traditional nature of her search for identity–especially in a time (1995) of white-hot digital media and ever more sophisticated sci-fi visions coming out of Tokyo near the end of the millennium.  Our girl hero is seemingly transported back to a more traditional time not by a time machine, but by her love of reading fiction (in actual books!) and by falling in love with a boy rooted in tradition by his folk music family and his craftsman aspirations.  (He’s apprenticing to be a violin maker.)  In other words, our hero’s search for identity takes place in the realm of the arts.

Sure, the film ends with the boy declaring his love for the girl.  But what really matters–the more important conflict–is the girl’s decision to become a writer.  It’s true that, in the closing sequence, our hero’s love interest takes her to see his secret Tokyo sunrise and not only declares his love for her from the proverbial mountaintop, but he also proposes marriage.

Sappy enough?  Yes, but only for a moment.  In the next instant you realize two critical things:  a) that these kids are only fourteen years old, and, b) that the boy is shipping off to Italy for ten years that very afternoon.  The marriage proposal in the final sequence has a stuck-on feel.  It seems to come from out of the blue.  And one realizes this is pointedly artificial.  While romantic stories commonly end in marriage, this one ends with a marriage proposal, only.  It’s sweet and optimistic.  But it’s not marriage.  What’s next (off-stage) is that the boy will immediately leave for Italy, to stay for ten years.  So one has to wonder about this premature engagement;  a lot will happen in ten years.  And this is the point:  while love and marriage may still be fantasies for this particular hero, what her heart is whispering to her is a realism common to all the anime in my Top 15.  This is not the story of the birth of young love, but, rather, another story entirely:  the birth of the artist.