Thursday, July 30, 2015

Re-Thinking The Museum ~

I am such an art commie. As a reformed Hasselblad and large-format shooter, I've come to embrace the democratizing effect of cameras in the smartphone, and digital photography in general. But there's more to it that just this, much more. Within this digital world is the virtual museum, and the accessibility of the works of the great (and not-so-great) masters, the famous works and neglected artists, the big and the small, are all encompassed in this lovely glass world at our fingertips. And yes, this is a good thing.

When I was a portrait photographer in northern California back in the '80s, I was a member of Friends of Photography, an Ansel Adams - based group of fine-art photographers based at that time in Carmel. I made monthly pilgrimages to see their exhibits, and was always blown away by the works on display. Sometimes they were images from the masters themselves -- Adams, Weston -- but more often by little known up-and-comers whose works both humbled and inspired. And that's precisely the point I'm struggling to make here: those incredible photographs were accessible through no other means than a couple hour's drive south to Carmel. There was no way to share my experience with anyone who hadn't likewise gone there to see them.

And yes, I know, I wrote here a couple years back about the tactile and visceral experience of seeing great art in person. I'm a gallery hound. But wander as much as I do, I'm still usually not in San Francisco, or New York, or London, or wherever the heck a great photography show is being hosted, but a quick google search will turn up exquisite exhibitions and challenging reviews, as well as websites fully dedicated to hosting a broad spectrum of contemporary photography, such as 500px. And for heavens sake, expand your horizons beyond photography: the world of contemporary art is limitless, and all of it will inspire. Well, most of it, anyway. The photo-marxist in me loves to be offended every now and then. There's no other way to know what you love.

Viva la revolución!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A State of Grace (And the Right Exposure) ~

This winter I'm slated to give a talk to a group of medical professionals on connecting and creativity, so naturally I've already begun to ruminate on it. And, more naturally still, it allowed my mind to wander about, much as my feet do, exploring my own sources of creativity and pathways of connection. All roads lead to Rome, they say, but mine usually have me ending up here at the studio, my sanctuary. Or at a good coffee shop.

We all need these places, wherever they may be. In the past it was usually the darkroom for me, and I've posted here before about it's charms, even a task as straightforward as loading film for developing. I kid you not. I can still imagine it, still feel it: my thumbnail slicing open the paper tab holding back the exposed film on a 120 roll, and the cold sheen as it wound onto the stainless steel reel. Seems like no big deal, I probably did it a million times, but it was somehow always transcendent. It was meditation, it was morning vespers. It got the creative juices flowing. The act of photography is being alive and awake in the moment; the process afterwards, whether in the darkroom or at the computer, is its revelation. It is pure joy.

But let's not get all new-agey and smarmy here. There's no magic involved, and I'm certainly no mystic. I'm as susceptible to diversions and dissipations as the best of them, honestly. Photographers, and artists generally, tend in that direction anyway, so best to have fun with it. But in my daily encounters and photography workshops I meet people who are ardently seeking their own wellsprings of creativity, and believe it may come from improving their technique or their equipment. There may be a little truth in that, but I suspect it's much simpler than that, so simple it's easily overlooked. Find that quiet place and carry it with you, is what I like to tell them. Point your camera. Say cheese and smile. Don't worry if at first you don't find your voice, because it will eventually find you.

And a nice little coffee shop is always a good place to start.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Chinatown Syndrome ~

In case you haven't noticed, I love the urban landscape. Oh sure, landscapes in general, too; what photographer doesn't like a nice big tree now and then? But I'm not Gainsborough, and I'm not Monet. The human imprint on the world provides challenge and inspiration, and I'm a total sucker for it. Nowhere is this more evident than in those parts of cities and towns that we collectively call Chinatown; a total feast for the senses, in every sense of the word. The camera loves the bright colors and textures, but there's also music in hearing Mandarin, and obviously some of the best food in the world. What's not to love?

I've had the delightfully good fortune to wander through many a Chinatown in North America over the years: New York, Toronto, Vancouver BC, and countless times in San Francisco when I lived nearby; heck I've even been to Chinatown in Guadalajara. Our own here in Portland is a bit meager by comparison, but holds forth its charms nonetheless. The iPhone is great for that (hopefully) unobtrusive shot, but I've been chased away by more than a few shopkeepers, too. So I usually make some token purchase just to keep things honest, and besides, who couldn't use a couple dried anchovies? At least that's what I think they were.

So however far afield I may wander (and as forgetful as I'm getting, it may be far indeed) I will always and forever be drawn to these breathlessly beautiful Asian spaces. The photographic opportunities are limitless, but the cultural, human connections are more priceless still.  Come with me next time, and we'll explore the shops, alleyways, fruit and veggie stands, fish markets, tea houses and the spots where off-duty cooks gather and smoke in the wee hours. Probably pick up some dried anchovies.

Pretty sure that's what they are.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Zen and The Art Of The Honest Portrait ~

My wandering notwithstanding, I've always been a portrait shooter. This has been my life-long passion, and the well from which I continually draw inspiration. The studio is my sanctuary, and the human subject my contemplation. There is nothing more beautiful. So I'm in a frame of mind today to carry a little further a discussion that arose during a portrait workshop I conducted recently, namely: who have been my most significant influences? That's always a tough question to answer -- if you leave out the guy who invented tequila, anyway -- but there are certainly two I'm always likely to mention. The two styles they represent, while producing very distinct imaging, possess one fundamental key in common: simplicity.
Phillip Stewart Charis. During my formative years I always had his books tucked under my arm. His approach to portraiture was so so pure and honest, and such a departure from the four, five and sometimes six light style I had learned in the studio in the 1970's. He used one light (sometimes with an umbrella, other times a large soft box) and a reflector. This allowed him to concentrate on the individual in front of the camera and capture something from deep down inside them, that place where real beauty abides. I had a chance to meet Charis a few years back at a professional gathering where I was about to conduct a lighting workshop, and the evening I spent with this sincere and quiet man was revelatory.

Another influence, at times nearly as profound, is a photographer I only know by reputation: a Russian by the name of Dmitry Ageev. Using simple lighting and even natural light (which I still find elusive, but fascinating) his work is more stark, personal, and spare than Charis'. I discovered him on an online forum examining contemporary portraiture a few years ago and was instantly taken by his work. He seemed the natural progression from those whose work I studied initially (Yousuf Karsh, Avedon, for example) through Charis, to the portraits I aspire to create today. I would like to share a drink with him someday.

So what advice do I hand out during a workshop where we're studying lighting and posing? Well, sure, learn technique as much as you can, but seek inspiration in every illuminated corner.  I try to seek it everywhere: literature, poetry, painting. Maybe even that good tequila. Hemingway even advised to write drunk, edit sober. Hey, whatever works. But Thoreau said it best:

simplify .... simplify .... simplify.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Plato's Travelogues, Part Deux ~

Well, you may not have missed me, but I missed you. My travels this month (and I travel light, mind you) kept me away from posting here the past two weeks. Much has happened, and much I am still digesting. It's what a rail journey across Canada can bring to you: the romance (and tedium) of long-distance travel with all the glorious sights, smells, and tastes you need to stay awake past midnight. Good coffee helps.

It puts me in mind of that conversation I've been holding in my head for many years, the one where I muse over the subtle distinctions between traveling and wandering, and why a curious tourist like me would fret over such things. But fret I must, because I'm sure those distinctions may very well inform the way I see and photograph my surroundings. Traveling, I submit, suggests a plan, a purpose, a destination. I take my Fuji and lenses, square my jaw, and set about the task of a modern-day Lowell Thomas to share my own personal joie de la découverte. Without the narration, of course. But trust me, it's fun.

Wandering, on the other hand, is something altogether unique. When we got to Montreal, for example, my wife and I checked into our little hotel in the old French Quarter, and from there simply walked around and explored for nearly a blissful and mindless week. This is iPhone territory, mes amis.  With only the sketchiest of plans and absent an itinerary, the veteran wanderer is free to react with virgin eyes to the amazing, beautiful scenes encountered at every turn. Or maybe that's the virgin wanderer with veteran eyes? No matter. The traveler is a grown-up, the wanderer is forever a child.

A painter has the ability to linger over an image for a long time and be fully involved in it, an opportunity not as easily accorded to the photographer. So for many of the photos I took while visiting these wonderful places, I'm going to try to practice what I preach. Step back for a while; let an image rest in your mind and come back to it with fresh eyes and new perspectives; put a part of yourself in there, make it personal and yes, even intimate. Let it tell a story.

Trust me, it's fun.

Good coffee helps.