Friday, June 30, 2017

The Original One and Only ~

It's been a busy summer. Lately I've been neck-deep in projects large and small, not the least of which is making and selling prints of my digital photos, some going back as far as the turn of the century. This one, anyway. The process of making photographic prints is something I have had a deep love affair with for decades, and it keeps me up at night, as all great loves will. I find my editing inspiration is at its most lucid 'round about midnight, with the urgency of the hand-held image hot on its heels. Tequila is often involved; the coffee, not for a few hours yet. Bienvenido a mi mundo.

So then, what vexing insight causes me to start writing a blog in these wee hours? A question, actually, and a conundrum: what is an original photograph? I mean, I know well and good what original art is. I know that a painting -- a watercolor, an oil, whatever -- is a unique artifact. Yes, it can be mechanically copied and reproduced countless times, but we instinctively recognize the difference between that painting, directly coming from the hands of the artist, and those reproductions, regardless of their faithfulness to the original source. And we value them accordingly. But can this same dynamic apply to a photograph where, in most cases, the artifact and its means of reproduction are the same?

These thoughts come to me as I make my color prints from a fine Canon printer, complete with color profiles that ensure each print comes off as I intended. And each one I call (unrepentant dilettante that I am) original. But what a difference from the personal black & white work I produced in the darkroom back in another lifetime! We were taught then, of course, to keep meticulous notes on our process, detailing precise measurements of time and chemistry to ensure a likewise high degree of consistency from one print to the next. Ansel did this, and often upon reaching the perfect printing solution would make a dozen or so at a time for his portfolios, each identically cloned.

This I did not do.

No, I operated almost entirely on instinct and mood and serendipity until I came up with just exactly the image I wanted, keeping zero notes, and couldn't have reproduced that same image if I tried. It invariably took several weeks to get the perfect print, and I was in no hurry. My last gallery show of black & white photos, printed from negatives in this cowboy style, was at Broderick Gallery in Portland back in 2000. It consisted of 12 framed images. It took two years to make, and I sold them all. I haven't seen them or made new ones since. I consider them originals.

I feels different now, although I'm happy to report it doesn't take me weeks anymore to produce an acceptable image. At my age, I probably don't have that kind of time to spare, anyway. I do nonetheless spend a great deal of time on a given image, working and re-working, adjusting it to my mood and fickleness over time until I think it says what it needed to say. As mentioned, I have some good color profiles and can faithfully print it out on good paper whenever I want. And a year from now, in the wee hours of some future night, I may very well interpret it all over again for the first time. My moods likely will have changed and the image won't carry with it the burdens of expectation. It'll be new, it'll surprise me, and I'll make a clean print of it. I'll consider that an original, too. Then the sun will rise, I'll have that coffee, and get to work.

Welcome to my world.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Another Fine Mess I've Gotten Myself Into ~

I do love to print photos. I spent more than a few years as a professional print-maker in my photo business, both color and black & white. I was rightly proud of my skills too, if I do say so. But in this digital age, I, like a lot of my contemporaries, have been somewhat content to view my images through the virtual lens of a computer screen. Somewhat, I say. It's an uneasy truce, at best.

The truth is, I've sorely missed the process of making prints. In the color lab, we had commercial processors using EP2  (and later, CA4) chemistry, so although my eyes were attuned to the limitless nuances of color, the process itself was straightforward and comfortably automated. But black & white was different. We had the choice of many fine high-silver papers -- different grades, different surfaces -- which have long since disappeared from the shelves of camera stores. We controlled contrast and tone chemically, our tools were time and temperature, and it was very much a messy hands-on affair. We do that work in software nowadays, and that's perfectly ok.

So what did I do but finally invest in a fine color printer. I have been selling my work as individual pieces (long gone are my portrait-shooting and package-printing days) and I sent out my work to good labs to do the job. I assume the work was perfectly good -- I've heard no complaints, but my public may be uncharacteristically compliant -- yet I always felt a little dissatisfied myself.

So here's my paean to shameless commerce. My printer is a doozy, it makes museum-quality prints, and the paper I use -- a Moab® 100% rag -- reminds me of the good ol' days. My website will shortly reflect all this, but suffice to say that my compliant public will now be getting a hand-printed, hand-signed, fully archival print directly from me. I'm making two sizes: a 12" print centered on 11"x14" paper, and a 16" print centered on a 13"x19" paper. Heck, I didn't even raised my prices.

But here's the thing: selling or not, there's just something richly satisfying about making a fine print that can't be experienced in any other way. Sure, I fully enjoy the process of editing an image, and lord knows I've spent a small fortune on hardware and software over the years to be able to do just that, but making it into a lovely print feels like coming full circle. I'm reminded all over again what I love about being a photographer.

And I don't have to wait two days for the print to dry.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Looking In The Right Places ~

I think sometimes we should let events carry us away. This late Oregon spring has been filled with the kind of events I often use as an excuse to keep me from my writing, so lets see if we can put an end to that right now. But what events they have been; some excellent travel (travel is always excellent), some absolutely wonderful photography walkabouts, a scattering of workshops, even a new printer to become acquainted with (more about that next time). But one event, one small moment -- a brief conversation with a friend, actually -- stands out among all the rest, and it stopped me in my tracks.

The conversation was, of course, about photography. Not the usual nuts-and-bolts about cameras and f-stops, but about something very different. My friend was quite expressive about the joy it gave him, that it was very much a spiritual and meditative experience. It was something far removed than the simple recording of images. My friend was not a professional photographer or artist by any means, but photography nevertheless gives him a connection to a deeply wonderful reality. I was moved by his eloquence and I share his passion. But it was the question that he then posed to me that set my mind ablaze: I'm still shooting with film, he said; do I need to switch to digital?

Wow. No, I said, you don't need to do anything, other than stay on your path. But I could only wonder at what devilish dynamic could have given him that kernel of doubt in the first place. My guess is that there is so little in our media that reinforces that joy and so much that dwells on only those nuts and bolts. Nearly every breath-taking landscape, every gorgeous portrait, is made to illustrate the hardware or software of our craft, or a particular artist who has mastered all that. That's all well and good, but I can see where an untrained amateur, even one with a superbly refined eye, may be lead to self-doubt. And I think it's a pity.

Well, I'm going to do my part. Every walkabout I do, every workshop I conduct, will be expressly to help find that joy. Camera tips? exposure advice? absolutely, but in the service of why more than how. That conversation with my friend helped inspire me, so let me return the favor. Let's celebrate the zen of the moment, regardless of what you shoot with. I'm not sure yet what such a workshop might look like, but I think it could be an event worth the making. You in?

We might get carried away.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

An Observant Observer ~

There's no such thing as a passive observer. Physics tells us this, and so does photography. Peeking in on the interactions of subatomic particles affects their progress; the observer becomes part of the action. We know this happens on a human level, too. We pretend we're just "taking pictures" of people, but there's no standing on the outside looking in, passionless and objective. We become the movers and the moved, the seers and the seen, and although the effect on both parties may at times seem minimal and routine, it is, at other times, profoundly moving indeed.

So what brings me to this rambling state of affairs, you may ask? A recent studio session with my friend Jay marked the approach to the end of a year photographing the progress of his transitioning. Last year we were working off-and-on together (I knew him as Jamie then) and could barely wrap my head around the challenge he had set out for himself. Then he asked if would, from time to time, take some pictures to help mark his progress. Hell yes, my friend. Lets do this.

Change that happens in front of our eyes is sometimes hard to detect, but if it's punctuated every month or so in front of a camera it can be quite dramatic. I really wanted to work in the studio to be as consistent in posing and lighting as possible, and this has made the drama of change so visible. There were no gimmicks of lighting and no photoshop wizardry, just an honest attempt to chronicle what I was observing. It's his story after all, not mine.

Photographically it has been a tremendous project, and I can almost make out the interaction of those particles. Their movements -- this life -- has been unfolding before me these past twelve months in ways unpredictable and moving, but stepping in to photograph them has, I'm sure, altered their trajectory in ways large and small. We've bonded closer as friends. I find myself more attuned to the nuance of quiet voices. The challenge to find clarity in the face of overwhelming change is what some people face everyday; all I can do is bring a camera to my eye and try to give it some space.

Subatomic and all.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Dr. Science's Color Stuff ~

I have an odd relationship with color. Oh sure, we're friends, but sometimes we place unrealistic demands upon each other. I definitely have something of a split-personality when it comes to color and photography, but I have long since come to embrace the uneasy duality. And I'm not referring to my past analog life where everything was seen with and through black & white film, either.

On the one hand, I am Dr. Science for the clients in my dental photography business. For them, color is a make-or-break deal. They need to see and photograph color with precision and accuracy, and then convey that color information to their dental lab so that they will end up with a product -- a crown, a veneer -- that their patient can wear with satisfaction. No small task, if you ask me.

So when I give my program on the topic of color, the complexities that emerge make it seem like any successful reproduction of color is downright impossible. Truth is, nobody sees color the same way. Women, for example, apparently see a lot more colors than men, and it's not all just an artifact of acculturation. Where they may see canary, dandelion, butterscotch, and lemon, we see ... yellow. And most guys are a bit deficient in blue-green perception compared on average to women -- a fact not lost on me during my many years as a color printer. Those are just a couple examples of the many complexities of seeing and working in color, making my instructions on using digital hardware and software important and oh so relevant. I earn a living off it.

So then, what's on that other hand? Well, it's just me and my zen: a camera and a mindful eye. Color is a suggestion, a starting point, a long walk off a short pier. What it is not is a destination. I'm not always consciously aware of what attracts the camera to my eye; of the many elements that make up an arresting scene, color may or may not be the most compelling. Heck, that's why I often prefer to go shooting on a grey and drizzly day when the role of color is diminished. The only thing I aim to see and photograph with any semblance of precision and accuracy is whatever odd state of mind the image puts me in.

No small task, if you ask me.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Professional Amateur ~

I love a good, loud headline. Gets my attention, which is exactly the point. So I was pleased to open up an online article from Modern Lens Magazine that told me These 7 Bad Habits Scream "Amateur Photographer." Scream, mind you. How's that for an opening act? Apparently, being an amateur is not fit for respectable folk, so I figured it was up to me to do some deconstructing.

Anyway, I'm not sure professional is necessarily the opposite of amateur; both are fluid and somewhat slippery concepts. Neither is an automatic indicator of talent or the lack thereof; it's pretty much a matter of where the 1099's get sent. I know many an amateur creating -- and selling, if they're lucky -- incredible photography. It's just not their day job.

Besides, there are lots of professionals who aren't photographers at all but still have to create good photographic images in their work. For many years now I've been in the business of training dentists and other medical professionals in using digital photography in their practice. Yeah, I know, heck of a niche, right? But their need for precise, color-accurate, accessible photography is as demanding as anyone's, maybe more. They will often apologize to me for being such "amateurs" with their camera, but I assure them: they are professionals of a high order, indeed. Labels be damned, lets just pick up a few new skills.

So what is it about some of those bad habits, anyway? Never looking at the camera manual. Screw that; manuals are for pikers. We don't need no stinkin' manuals. Chimping. Are you kidding? That's why I bought a camera with a big honking screen. Centering the subject. Heck, I really don't pay much attention. Relying on a single memory card. Hey, that's why I paid big bucks for a high-speed, high-capacity one in the first place. Post too many photos. Well, ok, you got me on that one. 

I guess it all comes down to a simple metric: bad habits are bad, good habits are good, but lets not get all hung up on them. Creativity requires risk-taking and letting go. Labels are only self-indentifying, and anyway I'm a lot more interested in a good photograph than a good photographer. 

Although I like hanging out with both.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Plato's Travelogues, Part 5 ~

February was a great month. As is my usual habit, I spent my birthday month engaging in as much travel -- and its attendant dissipations -- as I can fit into a scant 28 days, 29 if I'm calendrically lucky. A predictably and delightfully rainy trip to northern California capped it off, and of course I'm left to reflect on the fact that my recent trips have all involved a good deal of rain. This, I'm convinced, is a good thing. It makes for better photographs.

But traveling also demands, of me at least, a healthy dose of delayed gratification. Here's what I mean: I rarely travel with my laptop computer, a generously proportioned 15-inch Macbook Pro. Much as I would otherwise like to, I don't upload any of my pictures until well after the event, and this can be any number of days away. Oh sure, I always do some on my iPhone too, and those I can see and mess with right away. That, too, is a good thing, but the ones I take with my camera -- more contemplative, perhaps -- benefit from a cooling-off period.

There are a couple of reasons for this, the first of which has troubled me since I began shooting with a digital camera.  As much as anyone, I love the excitement, the joy, of seeing a beautiful image unfold in the viewfinder and then tripping the shutter. A quick glance at the LCD screen might even reinforce that feeling. But the excitement felt at the moment of exposure is often not the same as that which happens when the image is opened up and sprawled, naked and cold, on the computer screen. One is a Eureka! moment, the other is a "what do I do now?" one. They are inherently disconnected. Better to give them the advantage of time and avoid being unnecessarily disappointed. I'm sure it's a holdover from my film days, which involved the lengthy process of gathering up the exposed rolls and spending a few days developing the negatives before I could even get to the task of printing them. The inherent delay, the forced separation, was integral to the process. Consciously or not, I took advantage of it.

But the other reason, which I've mentioned in passing a couple times before, has to do with re-discovering an old image, as if to see it for the first time all over again. If I go back over images I took weeks or even months before, those initial responses and expectations are long gone. I get to interpret an image I had previously overlooked and will feel excited about it again, but for entirely different reasons having little or nothing to do with the original intent. I find that supremely satisfying, but then, I often feel the same way about Portland coffee or a good IPA. Or rain.

So maybe it's just me.