Dominique James, Photographer

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B, H, N, Y, C, U, S, A

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BY DOMINIQUE JAMES

A seemingly strange string of letters makes up the title of this blog post. If you’re a professional photographer, you probably have an idea what it means. If not, allow me tell you.

B and H, the first two letters in the sequence, stand for the name of a photo and video equipment store. Being a non-chain store, it is located only in New York City, which represents the next three letters. And it is the biggest in the United States of America, which brings us the final three in the string of letters. I could have added a W at the end, for it is also perhaps the most well-known in the entire world.

Sure, there are other B&Hs out there—an airline service, a publishing group, a music service, a brand of cigarette, a railroad company. But for our purposes, we refer to B&H as B&H Photo Video.

B&H started out in 1973 as a storefront shop selling film on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It is run by Herman Schreiber and his wife, Blimie, which pretty much explains what B&H stands for. Quickly outgrowing its space, it moved to a large loft on West 17th Street, in an area that was known in the 70s as the Photo District. Catering to the needs of neighborhood artists, the store expanded to sell film equipment and other photo products.

In 1997, B&H moved to its present 9th Avenue and 34th Street location. By October 30, 2007, it had opened the floor above the ground level sales floor, bringing the total to 70,000 square feet of sales space. Products such as pro lighting, binoculars and scopes, video, audio, darkroom, film, as well as home and portable entertainment are all on the first floor. On the second floor are analog and digital photography equipment, computers, printers, scanners and related accessories. With more than 235,000 products in stock, it’s almost certain that if a doodad exists, it can be bought at B&H.

B&H has more than 1,500 employees. On average, they serve an average of 11,000 to 12,000 in-store customers per day. In addition, B&H conducts a considerable amount of business on the Internet. In 35 years, B&H has grown into a “superstore.” With knowledgeable sales professionals and the installed  mechanical labyrinth to magically bring you each and every item you ask for wherever you happen to be in the store, B&H is the gadgeteer’s equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

B&H is so firmly established that it’s almost fair to say no self-respecting professional photographer (or professional videographer for that matter) from anywhere in the world has not heard of it. In fact, it is likely the world’s top photographers and videographers, at one point or another, have bought stuff from the B&H store, or at least ordered online.

When I moved to the city three years ago, I knew for sure I’d visit B&H soon enough—just to check things out. To me, it was an “attraction.” Of course, it doesn’t quite compare to the grandness of The Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty, but to a professional photographer such as myself, it’s one those not-to-be-missed places.

The first time I stepped inside B&H, I was somewhat overwhelmed and bewildered. I didn’t understand the store’s layout, directional signs, waypoints, and the many personnel stationed all over. But it soon enough made sense—these were all guides that had been carefully setup to orient where you were and direct where you should go.

As I settled into the city, I began to visit there to do something more purposeful: buy stuff. I can imagine that many cards like mine have thinned a millimeter from being constantly swiped at B&H’s checkout counters, more than at any other establishment in New York. Visa would be justifiably happy.

Everyone’s B&H experience is encapsulated between two points: an expectant beginning at the entrance door with Pedro, the cheery greeter who ushers one and all into the store; and a happy ending at the exit door with the smiling Sheila, who hands out survey coupons, and Alfonso, who expertly shows the proper way out.. In between, of course, is the heart and soul of the B&H experience, the encounters with the Davids, Solomons, and Jacobs at every nook and cranny of the two-floor selling area. This carefully controlled piece of Manhattan real estate hums with efficient commerce under a veneer of genuine, professional friendliness.

Lately, I have been hanging out at B&H—almost every day these past two months, more than I ever did at any other place in the entire amazing city of New York1. Just check out my recent check-ins at Foursquare2. And I don’t even work there! So there, that’s all there is to the string of letters that serves as this week’s blog title.

But wouldn’t you like to know why I’ve been spending a lot of time at B&H? I mean, how often do I (or anyone for that matter) really need to go there? Sure, I’ve been buying stuff, only because no one can remain impervious to the temptation on display. But shopping is not the only reason that I go there day to day. That’s the story I wanted to tell you.

Tucked in an area on the 2nd floor is a compact space called Event Space. It’s actually almost so inconspicuous that many people who go to B&H may not even notice it. I’ve been going there for photography lectures, seminars, and workshops, conducted by some of the most talented pros from around the world.

The B&H Event Space, launched in November of 2007, is a learning environment designed to educate, inspire, and cultivate a community of like-minded individuals who aspire to be great at what they love to do. By offering workshops and lectures in photography (and also video and pro audio), their mission is to help those in the community achieve their goals. David Brommer and Jennifer Diamond are two of its central figures. They are supported by a team of photo, video and audio experts: Allan Weitz, Andrew P. Byrd, Casey Krugman, Gabriel Biderman, Jason Friedman, Joey Quintero, and Larry Cohen.

Finding the right speakers to conduct talks at B&H is important. In many instances, they directly reach out to those whom they want to speak at the Event Space. “We find photographers on blogs or other industry websites, and will contact them if we like their work. Other times, we find speakers through recommendations,” Diamond said.

“The qualifications that we look for in a speaker are: first and foremost, quality of work; secondly, it’s important that the photographer has good public speaking skills. If the photographer is an instructor, that is a very good quality to have because it’s a strong indicator that they speak well. The usual concerns when getting speakers are scheduling—deciding what day is most appropriate for them to speak.”

The B&H Event Space also partners with major manufacturers in the imaging industry and academic institutions in the arts to produce a wide range of workshops and seminars, covering a vast spectrum of topics.

“There are times where speakers are sponsored by manufacturers, in which case the company chooses the speaker,” Diamond said. “Not all speakers are sponsored by companies, only about 10 percent are. Sometimes speakers will ask us to help find them sponsorship, and this can be very challenging. It’s really the responsibility of the speaker to find their own sponsorship. If we can assist, we will at times but it doesn’t always work out. It’s challenging to find sponsorship, especially in this economy.”

In addition, B&H “Mavens,” employees who are experts on a specific topic, teach classes in the Event Space. On Sundays, high-profile and emerging photographers, as well as industry professionals, deliver inspirational lectures about their work and spin their personal tales of success. “We like to have more artistic lectures on Sundays,” Diamond says.

The very first speaker at the Event Space was Mike Corrado from Nikon. It was a D300 and D300s product launch. Since then, the Event Space has hosted a number of prominent speakers including Brian Storm, Vincent Laforet, Joyce Tenneson, Joe McNally, and John Paul Caponigro. (Oh, by the way, just like everyone else, most of the speakers often shop before and after their lectures, sometimes spending thousands of dollars.)

The most requested topics are on software, mainly Photoshop and other editing tools like Adobe’s Lightroom and Apple’s Aperture. Lighting seminars and travel photography are also very popular.

The sessions that were the most memorable, Diamond says, were the Lensbaby photo safari through Times Square, Real Exposures with Harvey Stein, The Women Photography Panel, the f295 symposium, Sarah Small’s lecture, and David Brommer’s Composition class.

The best-attended session of all time was Joe McNally’s lecture—92 people!

All the sessions at the B&H Event Space are free. “We believe in providing free education to the public so that everyone has an equal chance to learn and benefit from the service we are providing,” Jennifer Diamond says. “We are not interested in gaining a profit from our events, but we realize that attendees who visit our Event Space may be inclined to shop once they are inside the store.”

The B&H Event Space can comfortably sit around 60 people at a time. Reservations to any of the events can be made online.

I found out about the Event Space during my first visit. I’d attended a couple of sessions before. Then two months ago, I decided to check it out again. Like a sudden addiction, I ended up attending most of the scheduled events, all within the span of 8 consecutive weeks. I sat for 2-hour stretches at a time, listening to different speakers: Peter Turnley, Katrin Eismann, Tim Grey, Adam Barker, Jim Vecchi, Will Crockett, Kareem Black, Andrew Gruber, Kerrick James, Jem Schofield, David Guy Maynard, Marc Silber, Allan Weitz, Rudy Winston, Quest Couch, Amy Kosh, Rick Berk, Victor Ha, Lili Almog, and Lindsay Adler.

Sitting in these sessions, I also got to know some of the other regular attendees. There’s Tina, the professional pet photographer who taps extensive notes into her netbook PC, There’s Meryll, who always asks questions about matters that are unclear. There’s Emmanuel, who listens attentively, absorbing everything like a sponge. And then there’s Jim who records the sessions with his Flip Mino.

After each of the 2-hour sessions, I invariably hang around the store a bit, wandering here and there, and almost always deciding which of the thousands and thousands of items on display I will  buy next. If you hang out in B&H long enough and often enough like I did, you’ll soon come to one inescapable realization—you want to buy everything.

But the B&H Event Space experience doesn’t end when the session ends. In fact, the lectures, workshops and seminars are just the beginning. The B&H Event Space is turning out to be a hub for a small but growing community. Beyond sitting in the sessions and receiving pro-level instruction and inspiration, anyone who might be interested can get involved in other ways.

For instance, you can sign up on their Facebook and Twitter pages to keep abreast of the goings-on, including additional unscheduled sessions, pop quizzes with special prizes, and many other surprise goodies. You can join and contribute photos in their Flickr group. On iTunes, you can download podcasts of some of their recorded sessions. And, here’s something that very few people know about—you can become one of the B&H Infinitists by joining the Infinity Photographic Society’s monthly gathering.

With all this, no wonder Sergey Brin, president and co-founder of Google, said that B&H is his favorite camera store. And yes, if it isn’t obvious yet, it’s mine too.

THE ART OF IPHONE PHOTOGRAPHY: I’m happy to share with you this good news—my book, The Art of iPhone Photography, (Rocky Nook) will be available soon. You can now pre-order this book online from Amazon. Do check it out! Thanks.

ONE MORE THING: As a way of saying thank you to the readers of The Pictorialist blog, I’m giving away a free high-resolution, full-color image of the Statue of Liberty. You can download this professionally photographed 7.57 MB JPEG image file now for free on my Flickr gallery. Just click here. You can do whatever you want to do with this photo, no restrictions and no strings attached. You can use this picture for personal, educational, commercial or any other purposes. This is the first of many more free images I’m going to be giving away. To keep up to date, follow me on Facebook and on Twitter. Also, check out and bookmark my blog here. Thanks!

Notes:

1The other places in New York where I spend a lot of time are museums and art galleries.

2Foursquare is a social networking software application that allows you to “check-in” and broadcast your location in real time using mobile devices such as an iPhone.

[About the author: Dominique James is a New York-based professional photographer. You can contact Dominique James through email or visit his fine art photography website Zatista. For more information, please click here.]

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Barge Ramos: The portrait of a Filipino fashion designer as an artist

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This is a portrait I photographed of legendary Filipino fashion designer, Barge Ramos.BY DOMINIQUE JAMES

There are many fascinatingly ultra-modern, forward-thinking, and world-class Filipino fashion designers. Without a doubt, Barge Ramos is one of them. His career as a fashion designer has spanned decades. He is one of the most consistent, most respected, and most well-loved. While most designers wax and wane with the times, Barge Ramos has remained steadfast through the ebb and flow of trends in the fashion design world. His fashion sensibilities naturally flow with the times, and his work evolves through the years, but his work is firmly anchored on the navigator’s eternal North Star.

It can be said that many good designers have lost their ways and have strayed from their self-indentity, endlessly and senselessly cycling through so many experimental stylistic persuasions. This is not the case with Barge Ramos. He has focused, and mastered, and is now much recognized and admired, for the art and craft of designing the single-most defining piece of clothing for the Filipinos, the Baro ng Tagalog.

The work that Barge Ramos has done through the years, designing upon and heaping his massive creative talent on the single staple of Philippines’ formal fashion wear for men, is nothing short of amazing. It is an unequaled accomplishment. Very few Filipino designers can claim to have achieved such an incredible feat.

I have had several opportunities to work with Barge Ramos and photograph the marvelously inventive Barong Tagalog on which he applied his designs through the years. I’ve also had the opportunity of taking his portraits. The picture of Barge Ramos here is one of the shots selected from the pictorial intended as an artist’s portrait for his recently published book, PINOY Dressing, Weaving Culture into Fashion. This amazing book, richly illustrated by Loretto, a legendary fashion sketch artist and an extremely talented fashion designer as well, is designed is by award-winning and critically acclaimed book designer, Ige Ramos.

In this exclusive Q&A interview I conducted with fashion designer, Barge Ramos, he talks about the singular object of his creative prowess, its evolution, his contribution and its future.

DOMINIQUE JAMES: From your perspective, and in your opinion, how is the Barong Tagalog tied to the culture and self-identity of the Filipino people? Why is the Barong Tagalog important, and even essential, to the nature and identity of the Filipino people? What does it symbolize?

BARGE RAMOS: The Barong Tagalog is umbilically tied to the soul and culture of the Filipino. From a lowly peasant worker’s shirt to the fully embroidered dress shirt in handwoven pineapple fabric, the Baro ng Tagalog has come a long way. It also was a symbol of oppression, under the Spanish years of colonization, when the Filipino ilustrados had to wear their inner shirt untucked, under the Western-style waistcoat. Ramon Magsaysay was the first Filipino President who wore the Barong Tagalog for his inauguration as President. In later years President Ferdinand Marcos made a decree, stating that the Barong Tagalog is the official national menswear for Filipinos.

Dominique James: With the changing and shifting fashion sense of the Filipinos, do you think the Barong Tagalog is still relevant today or is it turning to be just an “artifact” from a bygone era?

Barge Ramos: The intriguing aspect of the Barong Tagalog is that it is ever evolving. Of course there have been inappropriate innovations on it. Even the European designer Pierre Cardin changed its look and silhouette in the Sixties, when he put up shop in Manila (Philippines). Cardin constructed the Barong like a coat, tapered to the body and slightly flaring at the hem, with sleeves also cut and sewn like coat sleeves. He also did away with the traditional front pechera embroidery, making the barong, instead, sleek and structured. It was fresh and modern. However, it looked good only on men with slim, tall bodies, a rare minority among Filipino males.

Dominique James: As one of the figures of design authority today on the Barong Tagalog, how do you view your interpretation and designs compared to those created by the designers from past? How much of the Barong Tagalog that you design today is your idealized creation or version (a Barge Ramos stamp) compared to how we generally know it in terms of its pre-existing characteristic and recognizable elements such as basic structure, basic pattern, basic design, and basic construction? What would you consider as some of the innovations in design and construction that you would consider as your contribution to the styling of the Barong Tagalog?

Barge Ramos: What I do in my designs is to treat the Barong Tagalog like a canvass. I am inspired to translate the riotous colours of the Philippine jeepney, by way of batik handpainting on jusi fabric. Jusi is a by-product of silk. Or I photo-silkscreen on dyed jusi materials, a certain ethnic print pattern like the t’nalak of the Tibolis. I have even dipped real leaves on textile paint and printed on jusi, to come up with my leaf design.

Dominique James: What would you consider as the best or finest fabrics and materials for designing and tailoring a Barong Tagalog? What are your favorite materials and fabrics to work with?

Barge Ramos: Currently I am using a lot of pineapple pinya handwoven as well as the inabel cotton weaves from Ilocos. The pineapple fabric is delicate and diaphanous, perfect for more formal or dressy barongs, while the inabel lends itself to a more casual, streetwear type of barong.

Dominique James: What would you consider the hallmarks of a well-designed and well-made Barong Tagalog? What are the tell-tale signs that a Barong Tagalog is not well-made or well-designed?

Barge Ramos: A well-made Barong Tagalog should have a well-cut collar that fits comfortably around the neck. It should neither be too loose, not too tapered around the body. And of course it should exude an feeling of elegance.

Dominique James: From a design perspective, what have been the challenges you’ve encountered when updating the design of the Barong Tagalog that makes it still relevant for the modern times?

Barge Ramos: I’d like to think that the barongs I design are an alternative to the conventional, traditional and quite possibly boring ones that most Filipino men are seen in. In our Filipino culture, most Filipino men would want to look like the next one, not wanting to be different or to stand out of line. But times change, as well as lifestyles. Media, technology, even current events in the world are now changing how we think, how we live. There is still, of course a delicate balance between innovation and disaster. This is where the designer’s sense of style comes in.

Dominique James: The Barong Tagalog can be considered as a unisex outfit and can be worn by both the men and women. Is there a distinct difference between the two? If women can wear an appropriately designed Barong Tagalog, how does it differ from the traditional women’s baro at saya? What are the occassions when it is more appropriate for women to wear the Barong Tagalog over the baro at saya, or vice versa?

Barge Ramos: A lot of designers have made barongs for women. Since barong fabrics are light and translucent, with delicate hand-embroidery, barongs lend themselves easily to become shirt tunics for women. It’s simply a matter of silhouette, shape and construction, and of course the details. But when the invitation to an event says Filipiniana, the more appropriate dress code for women is the terno or the baro’t saya. But then again, I wouldn’t put it past some smart women to come in sleek silk pants and a colored barong tunic!

Dominique James: Is there a place for the Barong Tagalog and/or its derivative in the casual, dress-down fashion sense of Filipinos today? Can the formal Barong Tagalog be correctly, appropriately, and even successfully be adapted as casual, day-to-day clothing?

Barge Ramos: The Barong Tagalog has, in fact, seeped down to everyday wear for Filipinos, in the form of linen shirts, with either short or long sleeves. There was a time when hanky-cotton fabric was used for daytime barongs, and this was literally and figuratively a cool way to wear a barong in a tropical country.

Dominique James: Can a Barong Tagalog be designed and created by using other fabrics or materials and still be essentially considered a Barong Tagalog?

Barge Ramos: Fashion today is dictated to a huge extent by technology. Newer and newer fabrics, designed to meet the needs of contemporary lifestyles, are being created. We see this happening in fashion shows and pictorials in glossy magazines all over. It would be very interesting to see what new fabrics could be utilized for the Barong Tagalog.

Dominique James: In terms of how it is made and how it is being worn as a formal wear, do you think that the Barong Tagalog is still being treated with as much respect and reverence today as it used to be? Why or why not?

Barge Ramos: Why not, if a stretch cotton fabric, matched with stretch embroidery, can be made into a modern barong for the modern Filipino? Ideas are as limitless as one’s imagination.

Dominique James: In general, how has the Barong Tagalog, as a national dress, evolved? And how do you see it evolving in the hands of the young designers whose work will be patronized and worn by the future generation?

Barge Ramos: My book PINOY DRESSING, Weaving Culture into Fashion delves into traditional ways of dressing in the different regions of the Philippines, and how these can be translated into contemporary wear for the new generation of Filipinos. It would greatly make me happy to see how the younger breed of designers take up the challenge and re-create the Barong Tagalog. As if they were designing it for the very first time.

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