Monday, September 18, 2017

Living In The (Very Early) Moment ~

I began writing this post, after such a long summer's absence, in the wee hours of the morning out on the Oregon coast. We rented a little house near Otter Rock, somewhere between Depoe Bay and Newport, with stellar views of the Pacific and the night sky. After a summer of far too many heat waves and the usual stresses, the overwhelming silence and cool morning breeze are treasured beyond words. I live for these moments, ungodly early though they be.

Our coast is a photographer's dream, yet here I am at daybreak in this fine study with an equally fine view, typing out words, channeling my best Ivan Doig as he writes Winter Brothers, and not slopping down on the beach in my flip-flops seeking the magical light. I blame the coffee and the solitude; they're both great company.

But the cool thing about this visit was that we were accompanied by my two-and-a-half year-old granddaughter. The sheer delight of her seeing the ocean for the first time was just amazing. That's what's so great about kids, and what we may find instructive: they don't just live for the moment, their lives are the moment. There's no past to reflect upon, no future to fret over. There's just right now, and right now is pretty darn sweet. As a photographer, I hope to take as much delight in seeking out those beautiful moments, regardless of how the effort is teased out by reflecting and fretting. Especially the fretting. It's in my nature.

But I think I know this: if I can truly live in the moment, with or without my camera, then I can use the gift of writing, awkward though mine may be, to reflect on that moment and find peace with it. Believe it or not, I think it helps my photography. It brings that moment -- that image, what I felt at the time -- into as clear a focus as the photo itself. It helps me go forward, and it brings me some joy. It keeps me from fretting.

Just wish it wasn't so damned early.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Party On, Camera! ~

Hold on to your hats; this coming Saturday -- August 19 -- is a pretty special day. Ok, maybe not as solemnly sentimental as Bastille Day, or as sweetly nonsensical as Valentines Day, but unless your profession has a day celebrating itself, this one rings loud and proud. It is, mis amis, World Photography Day. I don't know if there is a National Accountants Day, or a World House Painters Day; if there isn't, there should be. We should celebrate who we are, and what we do. Photographers understand this.

It's partly history, of course. The exact timeline of what we know as photography is a little murky. Somewhere in the late 1820's, a Frenchman with the unpronounceable name of Nicéphore Niépce made some non-permanent silver chloride images; actual fixing chemistry came a little later. We generally recognize 1839 as the official starting point of our craft. It was in this year that another Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, announced a commercially viable process he called (wait for it...) the Daguerrotype. On August 19 of that year, the French government purchased the patent rights to the process and gave it to the world, a most unusual act of civic generosity. It makes for a fitting birthday, even if nobody knows how the heck to spell Daguerrotype without looking it up.

But history is all about reflection, not celebration, and I'm in the mood to party. Humanitarian and photography groups have formally set aside the day to create and share our photography for the common good. We're encouraged to get out there and take pictures, and there are several hosting sites where we can upload them to share. It's all well and good, even laudable, but I'm left feeling a little like the folks who only go to church on Easter: it ever so slightly misses the point.

Photography is a daily meditation, not an annual celebration, is what I say. Take photos today on your way to work. Heck, take photos at work. And tonight, and tomorrow, and the next day. And don't forget to take time to look at photography, too; online, in books, in magazines, Instagram and, yes, even Facebook. I look at tons of photos every day, everywhere I can, and a lot of them knock my socks off. I need the inspiration, I absolutely live for it, and I bet you do too. So don't forget then that this Saturday, August 19, is World Photography Day.

And you know what? Today is, too.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Mad Dogs and Englishmen ~

Only mad dogs and, if we are to believe Noel Coward, Englishmen go out in the noonday sun. I am neither. I don't like it out there. We Oregonians come in two stripes: those who soldier through the gray months to revel in our hot, sunny summers, and those who are just the opposite. Contrarians like me.

But I come to this sad state of affairs more or less honestly. I'm not a complainer -- Northwesterners seldom are, though we'd be easily excused should we start -- but aside from the heat and glare, the light quality positivity sucks. Speaking as a (albeit grumpy) photographer, I find that less of a challenge and more of an annoyance. It's not chasing light, it's being chased by it. There's little to recommend in hard, blocked-out shadows, and even less in squinty light where color and texture lay down to die. It's boring. It's hot. I need beer.

This past week, however, provided a brief respite from the solar ennui. It so happens that a big chunk of British Columbia (home, one might imagine, to more than its fair share of both mad dogs and Englishmen) is ablaze, and all that smoke has blown southward our way. The skies flattened out into a watercolor backdrop, muting both color and depth. Sunsets took on an appearance I can only imagine are commonplace on Mars. Emphysema be damned; I'm walking around in this with my camera.

The grayness and the rain and the lovely cool temperatures will return, as they always do. The colors will soften out and umbrellas will make an appearance. Herein lies the great unfettered joy of wandering about, seeking out those remarkable visual stories that the world puts forth when it rains. I stop whining, or at least cut back on it considerably. By October, it's photography perfection as the brilliant fall colors wrap themselves in a muted autumn sky. (It's also baseball's post-season and the return of hockey, otherwise known as my High Holy Days.)

Art is about passion, in photography and in all else. No matter what philosophical road I may choose to follow this day or that, it boils down to this: my passion is chasing that elusive, quiet, enveloping light.

And going out in the noonday rain.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Old And In The Way ~

A friend of my wife dropped by to visit last week. That in itself is unremarkable, of course; my wife does have friends and they do drop by to chat from time to time. But this time, said friend also brought along her vintage -- and damaged -- Canon AE-1 that you see here. I asked her if she wanted me to help get it repaired, but no; it's been dropped one time too many, she lamented, and besides, she doesn't need it anymore. It's old, it's useless, it's impractical. Just keep it.

Boy, can I relate to that.

I am by nature a philosophical person, given to introspection fueled by free time and caffeine overload. This is one of those times. Holding this old camera (carefully, I should point out -- the back doesn't stay on anymore) brought forth colorful memories. In general: what good and exciting times we had back when this camera newly arrived; every day was exciting, photography was something new to explore, and from time to time we made a couple bucks as we honed our skills. And in particular: this was a much-coveted camera, an up-and-comer enticing us Nikon owners; sleek, powerful, sexy, and so damn good.

Yes, the Nikon-vs-Canon argument goes back a long way, far pre-dating the digital era where the discussion takes on a whole new dimension. But there were lots and lots of cameras back then, and everyone had a favorite. Nearly all of them are now long gone. Did any of you ever own a Topcon? A Mamiya-Sekor? Google them if you're curious.

But this Canon AE-1 was different. It was delicious, and we knew it was a game-changer. Technology usually doesn't drive creativity, it should be the other way around. Photography, however,  has uniquely held this relationship in symbiosis. Our craft is largely (and sometimes unnecessarily) dependent upon its technology, and the AE-1 was one of those wonderful cameras that could grab you by the collar to get out there and look. You can do better, it told us; trust me.

It has walked along with us on an unforgettable journey, but now this one is relegated to paper-weight status on my bookshelf. I guess that's ok, it's just a machine, after all. It was meant to be outgrown. Fond memories are one thing, but nostalgia and sappy sentimentality are off-putting. If this camera could talk, it would likely tell us to pipe down and keep moving ahead. I did my job, it would say, so just keep doing yours. You can always be doing better.

Trust me.

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.