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.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Maximally minimal ~

I don't think I've ever enthusiastically embraced the notion that less is more. Not that I'm given to excess, mind you, at least not terribly often. I don't care for images that are cluttered or poorly arranged either, but the thought that empty space could somehow draw out of the viewer a range of emotions was, shall I say, unsupported. I just don't buy it.

And yet, and yet..........

I spent the better part of this week examining just those very minimalist photographs at the urging of a colleague back east, and could hardly draw my eyes away from them. Hengki Koentjoro, for example, is an Indonesian photographer whose work just blew me away (google him.) So I went through my usual gallery sites with a more refined minimalist eye, and came away impressed. A changed man? At my age, no. But one who came to some revelations about what we've been doing -- or should have been doing --all along.

And it only makes sense. After all, if you think about it, photography is more about what you leave out than what you put in. It's always been that way, we just have a hard time reflecting on it because we're usually in such a darn big hurry. When you bring the camera up to your eyes, you pretty much choke off 99% of the universe in the process. That's not a bad thing, of course; it's the very nature of the art. You just have to slow it down a notch.

So the task I set for myself was to go out and shoot with a maximalist heart and a minimalist eye. And no, it wasn't that I was going to purposely take "minimalist" photographs; such an objective will surely send you down the wrong path. I take pictures the way I take pictures, but I tried instead to be consciously aware of the elements around me that I was leaving out, and that, as Frost might say, has made all the difference.

But once again, mes amis, I apologetically leave you in a philosophical lurch. I have no great moral to impart, no important lesson to pass on. It's just me and an observation. I constantly take pictures, every day, everywhere, all the time. Usually I have a camera with me, but not always. After all, I think, the zen of photography is about the quiet spaces: seeing more, talking less.

Obviously haven't mastered that last part.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Photography Contrarian ~

I decided a long time ago that I wanted to make my photographs bass-ackwards, and this bears some explanation, as you can imagine. I think it came about when I began to really embrace all things digital, because this made me see things differently from my old darkroom days. A lot differently. And since I'm enjoying myself immensely, I pay little heed to my erstwhile advisors and detractors who came upon this technology from a different angle. Take your own damn pictures! I'm having too much fun.

So let me take you back to those old darkroom days for a little perspective. Despite the usual dissipations attendant to a 20-something neophyte, I was a diligent and disciplined photography student. I took it seriously, and trained under some intensely talented teachers. The lesson brought home by them, ratified by the writings of the ever influential Ansel Adams, was the insistent karma of pre-visualization. Whether in the studio or in the field, each shot was thought out ahead of time (sometimes even diagrammed) to visualize the values, tones, and intent of the photo when realized in the darkroom. It was, as you can tell, pretty much all planned out, and ideally there were no unpleasant surprises. So I ask you: what fun is that?

Don't get me wrong, this was wonderful training and it provided a rich background from which to spring. And spring I did. I began, imperceptibly at first, to turn my meditative gaze outward, and I discovered that my camera and my eyes teamed up to find the things that interested them, and I pretty much went along for the thrill-ride. Maybe it's just in the way I use imaging technology, or maybe it's the tequila, but in either event there's a profound joy -- and, yes, the yang of a little discomfort -- in not knowing exactly where I would end up. Life is like that.

But if you open yourself up to a little post-visualizing, here's what you'll discover: a wealth of infinitely-layered images that open themselves up to you with new surprises every time you visit them. They will entertain you, they will delight, they will talk back with an atittude and they will be profoundly challenging. I think that's the whole point of art anyway, and it's not the sort of thing you can easily plan out ahead of time. Create your own river I say, and then go with the flow.

No telling what you might discover.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Zen and the Art Of Trying Not To Freeze Your Ass Off

Blame it on climate change. The recent winter shift in weather patterns up here has been pretty dramatic, and not in a warming direction, either. Quite the contrary; it's a mini-Ice Age, a snowpocalypse, and downright pleistocene if you ask me. Cold, in other words, and I didn't sign up for this, but here we are. We'll make the best of it, come hell (oh, I wish) or high water.

So with temperatures that never got above the teens, my friend Dan and I took the notion that it'd be a good idea to drive up into the Columbia Gorge and find some frozen waterfalls to photograph. We bravely sallied forth, bundled up like a couple of four-year-old's, with all the photo gear we could muster. Which, between the two of us, is considerable.

The waterfalls in the gorge are an incredible site any time of the year; they wax and wane with the seasons and the rainfall. I've photographed them many times, but never in a nearly-frozen state like this. It presented some interesting challenges. We hiked (or, rather, skated) on the lower trail up to Latourell Falls, picked our way carefully down to Bridal Veil falls, and then coasted into the parking lot at Multnomah Falls. Somewhere in the mix we found an inviting brew-pub in Hood River to thaw out. Ok, so it's not the Shackelton expedition. Give me a break.

But you know me, I have to make every excursion into something more personal, more intense, than just a cruise with a camera. I want to bring the camera up to my eye and and lose myself in the moment -- in this case, an extremely cold moment, but a spellbinding one nonetheless. The swirling mists at the bottom of the falls were instantly freezing on our lenses (and my glasses) so I know that I was sometimes shooting on faith alone. Therein lies the beauty of the motions.

And truth be told, I love shooting in gray and inclement conditions. Let me rephrase that: it's not that I love actually shooting in them -- I take my creature comforts seriously -- but I do truly love the photographic possibilities inherent in the gray skies, the rain and the fog. Add to that snow and ice now, too. A nice, warm day presents few challenges physically or photographically, and for all their discomforts, the frozen waterfalls quite literally took my breath away. It was a rare visual feast.

Shackelton would have been proud.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Un-Resolutions For A New Year ~

I find myself sitting at my desk, gazing mindlessly down at the meadow, here in these first few hours and days of the new year 2017. By tradition, one supposes, I should be pondering some resolutions and promises to keep in these upcoming months, but I'm not of that mind. Sorry to disappoint.  Another fine tradition is to register an optimism that the new year will accord us a more generous slice of luck and goodness than last year. But truth be told, acknowledging all its ups and downs, 2016 was, on balance, a pretty good year. So was 2015, and the year before that, and the one before that, too. I've lived a lot of the-year-before-thats, by the way, so I guess it'd be alright to remark on a few things I might like to do this year.

I fully expect that photography will continue to surprise and challenge me. If it has taught me anything, it's that when I stay in the moment, I'm best able to see light and beauty. I've struggled all my life as a photographer to achieve and appreciate its zen, and I'm getting closer.  A few more years maybe, or in another life, but I'm thoroughly enjoying the effort.

Oh, and sure, there are some new things (ok, toys) that I'd like this year too, but whether they help me improve my photography is questionable. But so what. New toys seldom do, but that's hardly the point. They keep us excited. For example, I really don't need another camera, but boy would I like that new mirrorless Fuji X-Pro2. I have the Xe2 and love it to death, and I do recognize the difference between need and want. But again, so what. On the other hand, I do expect to pick up a new printer this year and hand-print my photos. I'm getting more and more people asking to buy them, and I'd like to have complete quality-control over their production. Plus, just between you and me, I miss printing something fierce.

So here I am, still gazing down at the meadow, think wistful thoughts. I'd like to get out more with my friends and colleagues to wander about the city looking for the perfect photograph, or at least a darn good one. I'll try to connect more, and hope you'll reach out, too. It doesn't take much to talk me into a photowalk, and if misery loves company, well, so does happiness. Even more so.

And as I continue to shift my gaze from laptop to meadow, I notice a few snowflakes beginning to fall. Yes, we do get snow in Portland, and it reminds me that I do need to resolve to make an important purchase, and soon.

Snow tires.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Right Back Where We Started ~

Ok, so it's just a few days before Christmas and by rights I should be getting started on my shopping, but no. I figure I still have time, and besides, I've been thinking more about apps recently than presents or even sugar plum fairies, whatever the heck they are. That's just how I roll, particularly since I was introduced to a photo app this week by a like-minded friend. Truth is, of course, I have a ton of photo apps, but this one has me preoccupied...and for all the wrong reasons.

It's a new one called Darkr. And yes, that's how it's spelled. Darkr. Maybe it's just me, and maybe I'm a little skeptical. It's supposed to give the experience of actually using a "real" camera (as opposed to propping up the iPhone in front of your face?) and then spend a little time working with the resulting black & white negative, just like in the darkroom. Only, not.

As you can see, you get to look through the viewfinder of an actual (well, virtual) camera, in this case what looks like a Yashica rangefinder. But you could also choose a medium-format or even the viewscreen of a large format camera, image inverted and all. Plus, you control the exposure with actual shutter speeds and f/stops. Now don't get me wrong, I think this is all very cool and I can't say I'm not enjoying playing with it. But I have to wonder: who is this designed for, and dear god, why?

If it's aimed at us old guys -- you know, like we've been hanging 'round the general store, pining for the fjords -- then they missed the mark by about a mile. We've moved on, and happily so. We have good gear and iPhones, and if the mood strikes we still can haul out the old Deardorff and load up some Tri-X. But frankly, the mood doesn't strike all that often any more (chalk it up to age and statins, and yes, I'm talking about old cameras, not whatever the hell it is that you're thinking about.)

And if it's aimed at a whole new generation unfamiliar with that old stuff, well then, good luck with that. Some analog experiences can't be reproduced in a digital world, but that doesn't mean you can't try. And I'm betting this app was designed by just one of those very people, thus my skoosh of skepticism. We're just not thinking on the same wavelength.

So you know what I'm going to do someday? I'm going to hike up Half Dome, set up a big old Reis tripod, find a good position under the dark cloth, and make my best Ansel Adams landscape -- on an iPad. I think he, of all people, would see the humor in it and frankly, if he were still around, he would have beaten me to it. Old guys.

That's just how we roll.