Thursday, April 30, 2015

Pictures, Pixels, and Poetry ~

I think I have a theory about photography, or at least why I do photography, and it involves rhythm, harmony, and the happy perfection of birthday cake. Oh yes.
It's damn near impossible to find expression in words for how you see the world, and whatever vision you can muster up comes from someplace deep inside a sometimes unreachable place. I find myself tapping into it through my camera, but those who really know how to dream can convey those same thoughts and feelings through poetry.  I'm forever in awe of that talent.
Lest you think I'm getting all smarmy and new-agey here, let me put that to rest. I'm no mystic, but as I advance in years I'm having more fun and feeling more creative with my photography than I ever have. That's not to say I was ever just going through the motions all those years working commercially, because I certainly wasn't. Photography has been an infinite source of joy since day one. So why now? Why is it that I can hardly take ten steps without seeing something that moves me to photograph it?

My friend Monterey has the right take on this. We were sharing cake and cabernet at Lily's birthday party this past weekend, which was an amazingly joyful (and eagerly photographed) event -- what four year-old's party isn't? Being both a photographer (we collaborated on many a project over the years) and an insightful and talented poet (a solitary pursuit that invites no collaboration), we talked at length about the equivalency of a photograph and a poem, and how both share the same remarkable vibrations. Art is autobiography, and I guess I'm looking to say as much as I'm looking to see; the camera is the perfect tool for those of us who are otherwise mute. The older I get, the more energized I am by the process.

"Who looks outside, dreams" says Carl Jung; "who looks inside, awakens." Don't know if he ever wrote poetry, and pretty sure he never took a photo, but what the hey, I'm right there with you, brother.

So let's do this. Get your camera -- or pen and paper -- and let's go wake up.

I'll make prints.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

On The Value of Art and The Price Of Good Tea ~

And what, you may ask, is the value of art? Well in my case, $43.60. A surprisingly precise sum for such an ambiguous thing as "art", but stay with me and I'll try to explain.
My eyes wander about with the same casual aimfullness as do my feet, and they often land upon sights that are hidden gems. In fact, they almost always do, because gems, hidden and otherwise, are all around, all the time. Even in -- maybe especially in -- unfamiliar and unexpected places. Like a tea shop. And such was the case that resulted in the image you see here.
I just happened to glance into the tea shop at the mall and noticed this gentle arrangement of teapot, cups, and blossoms that begged to be photographed. And, of course, I'm never without at least my iPhone, so there was no excuse to not go in and explore. The young lady who worked there was the very picture of friendliness and so I poured forth my honest intentions -- that I desperately needed some tea. And not just any tea, but the kind that would do a Buddhist monk proud, the kind that would have been swiftly transported to English ports aboard the Cutty Sark, the kind that even the most ardent patriot would blanche at dumping into a harbor. Expensive tea, necessary tea, and oh by the way, mind if I take a quick snapshot of that lovely arrangement I see on that shelf?
For the record, the tea was called Golden Monkey, and was roughly the same price, ounce-per-ounce, as your average Toyota, but oh my god it was probably the most delicious tea I've ever had. And it allowed me to find this lovely, quiet little image, and an evening of joy exploring and interpreting it.

Just for grins, here's what I saw when I initially peeked in. You can see why I was drawn to it, and I trust you would have been, too. Yes? No? Maybe?

I have no doubt that if I had asked nicely the sweet young lady would have let me take pictures without buying anything, but I would have felt somewhat diminished, I think. I'm no ordinary thief. I pay for the things I steal.

In this case, it was worth all the tea in China.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

On Teachable Moments and Lifetimes ~

Last Sunday I taught a studio lighting and portrait workshop, and as I hope this image shows, we met with a certain degree of success.  I love doing workshops. I love to see these photographers discovering anew some of the alchemy I've been practicing for a long time. And as things often do at my age, it put me a frame of mind to reflect back on the many teachers who goaded, prodded, yelled at, suffered through, and inspired me to get to this most satisfactory point in my life.

Inspire. The word comes to us (of course) from Latin, by way of Middle English, and means, simply, to breath; it creates in us that spark of creativity. This is appropriate. The best photographers who were my teachers gave me this life, and at this point I know of no other way to live or, for that matter, to actually even see. (Plus, in a roundabout way through the Gaelic word for breath, we also end up with the word whiskey, and I'm not about to go judging the wisdom of the ancients.)

I have been mentored and inspired by some pretty incredible people over the years, photographers both well-known and quietly anonymous; artists and philosophers, poets and painters, free thinkers of all stripes, and more than the occasional crank. I love them all, and hope I reflect at least a little glow from each of them. And I hope I do them proud by challenging myself to go even further into new territories that were beyond their horizons. It's supposed to be that way, you know. Michelangelo himself said that the student who fails to surpass his master, fails his master.

Well then, I better get busy. I still have a lifetime of learning ahead of me before I can achieve that lofty goal.

Maybe I'll start with a little sip of some single-malt inspiration.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Re-Thinking the Familiar ~

I've never considered myself much of a landscape photographer. Even back in the day, with large format cameras and 4x5 black & white film, the outdoors excursion was largely an exercise in perfecting exposure techniques. And largely, too, just plain old exercise: these were big heavy cameras, after all.  But the past couple years or so I've been having a remarkably fun time wandering around out there, looking -- and photographing -- the immensity of beauty that's all around. It's funny how I'd never really noticed, never even really seen it all before, and I imagine it's because I wasn't really looking. Now I can't not look. It's driving me crazy. I love it.

And that's how it was this week, when my sister and my niece visited from land-locked Colorado. A fine photographer in her own right, we worked a bit in the studio, but we also spent a beautiful day at the Oregon coast. Delicious rain, delicious light, and countless familiar and often-photographed scenes -- which gets to the point I want to make: it hardly matters if the landscape before you is iconic, recognizable, familiar. Ansel Adams once said that in any landscape, there are only two people: the photographer, and the viewer. So take out your camera and use it; you will put yourself into that image and make it a personal statement. Every photo you take is an intimate moment. I may have seen dozens of photographs of Hay Stack Rock in Cannon Beach...but I haven't seen yours.

"What moves those of genius," according to Eugene Delacroix (who you'd think would know), "what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough."

No, I'm not sure what he's talking about, either.  But I am going to keep looking at things with fresh eyes, and keep taking photos over and over again for the first time.

I hope you don't mind.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Old and In The Way, Part 3 ~

Boy, talk about some old skills. Most old photo dogs like me spent a great deal of time honing our printing skills in the darkrooms of yore, the Thomas safelight buzzing, hypo fumes wafting into our noses (and hearts and lungs, presumably), and water running, running, running, all day long. Good times. I miss 'em. And that was all state-of-the-art for the time: modern techniques, chemical processes, even the optics and electronics of enlargers and cold-light heads. But what I got really excited about were the ways of making photographs from the earlier, non-silver era of our medium.
I worked a lot in Gum Dichromate; the image above is a portrait I took of my daughter Sara in 1988. I made the negative in my 8 x 10 Burke & James camera, and the printing process involved laying down an emulsion of gum arabic mixed with watercolor pigment on good quality watercolor paper. The emulsion was made light-sensitive by the addition of potassium dichromate, and the negative was contact-printed directly upon it, being exposed to strong ultraviolet light, and then "processed" under gently running water. It was a long, meticulous process getting a good image, sometimes requiring building up many layers over and over. Beer drinking was often involved.

I was thinking a lot about that recently, and my musings lead me to pen a few notes about it here. I've always tried to explore the artistic limits of the craft of photography, every bit as much now as I did 20 or 30 years ago. Maybe even more so. Some say that now you can achieve these results with the pouch of a button, but that's far from the truth. We have infinitely more avenues to push ourselves, to seek and express that creative voice, then we've ever had before.

Someone once complimented the great cellist Pablo Casals on his exquisite music; he was then in his 80's, and responded that, yes, he felt he was starting to get the hang of it.

I'm having the time of my life as a photographer. I have quite a ways to go yet, but yes, I think I'll eventually get the hang of it, too.