Thursday, September 24, 2015

Gray Matters ~

I've mentioned in posts before that photographers are attracted to shiny things. Well anyway, unrepentant gearheads like me certainly are, but the larger truth is much more interesting. It's not the shiny things that possess us so, it's really the gray matter that occupies our daily minds, and I'm not talking about our brains (tempting though that is.) Gray dominates our photographic way of thinking: neutral gray, 15% gray, grayscales, 256 shades of gray in a jpeg, and more. I was put in mind of this by a conversation I had this week with a client in Honolulu; as we texted back and forth (yes, texted; who talks anymore?) he expressed his sympathy that we in Oregon were about to enter into our gray and rainy season. His intentions were sincere, but I told him, in the friendliest Oregonian manner I could muster, to kindly put a sock in it.

This is, after all, what I live for; I celebrate the first day of Fall and all that it portends. We've been taught that it was always preferable to take a portrait outdoors when it was overcast, but that's not what turns me on. It's the colors. When it's gray, when the light is soft and diffuse, colors truly come alive and express themselves with poetry instead of prose. They're not hiding in deep shadows, nor burned away in the light of a cloudless sky. They get to sing. And let me tell you, autumn is just about as beautiful here in the Northwest as it is anywhere in the world. Plus -- from a purely practical standpoint, mind you -- it's far more pleasurable to wander about in a clement atmosphere. Nobody wilts more in the mid-day sun than a pasty Oregonian, nor bitches quite as much about it. There. I've said it.

But there's really more to it than that even, and it all has to do with mood; both in the scene, and in my head. The kind of gray that dominates our late fall and winters is, in itself, subtly charged with emotion and atmosphere; a particular moody note that permeates the world and which compels me to go forth with camera and raincoat to try and capture. It's quintessentially Oregon. Why else would there be so much coffee up here?

So I say, take joy in the long Northwestern gray, or at least take heart. And to my friends in Hawaii and other sunny climes, take note but don't take pity: we can't help but find something creative in our foul weather and our foul moods. We'll come visit when it gets a little overwhelming, perhaps, and maybe it'll re-charge our batteries, but there is opportunity and optimism in all that gray that you may never understand.

Come to think of it, we probably won't either. But it won't stand in our way.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Group Theory and the Percolation of Time ~

This week I had the great pleasure of a rainy Portland photowalk (a common event) with one of my favorite photographers, Laurie Excell (a not-as-common event, which we will hopefully rectify.) Accompanied by my wife Nancy, who brought her watercolorist's eye for fantasy, we tramped the tracks and warehouses of southeast Portland and wandered through the warrens of a place called Cargo, which I had only discovered a few days earlier. Granted, these excursions may not carry the emotional weight of, say, a birthday party (of which I have had far too many, anyway) but for me these are a source of unfettered joy and creativity far outweighing the benefits of a simple hike. I highly recommend this; it's good medicine.

There is an energy in the company of cohorts and co-conspirators that I find irresistible. Colleagues or students, artists or poets, Jedi or Padawan; it takes more than one set of eyes to peel back the layers that often stand in the way of seeing what's there. Even in the studio I have always looked at the portrait session as more of a collaboration than a project. There's strength in numbers, to be sure, and a lot of creative energy. And someone usually knows a great place for coffee.

But here's the interesting thing, for me anyway. I like to get to those images on my computer just as quickly as I can, while the excitement of discovery is still fresh in my mind. There's always those one or two that leap out and demand my attention all over again, just as they did when I pointed the camera at them. The rest of them hide in the bushes, waiting for me to come walking by later so they can trip me and laugh. It's a habit I developed way back in the dark(room) ages, to purposefully let an image alone to percolate for a while, and see it as something new and fresh and exciting days, sometimes weeks, later. Great things are often hiding in the things you photograph; you saw it at the time, but just didn't know it.
I won't go so far as to compare the photo (be it a negative or a raw file) to a graceful wine that improves with age; it's a dumb cliché and anyway I prefer harder stuff. More like a casserole left in the 'fridge: it's always better the next day.

So let me know if you want to go out photowalking with me. I'm trying to make this a more regular part of my life; it's great exercise for a healthy heart and restless mind.

It's good medicine.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

On Gearheads and Galaxies ~

Let me start right off by saying today's post is not a product review. Not that I have anything against them, mind you, but like the teacher who said there'd be no math, I had promised to avoid them. Most of the time, anyway. Don't get me wrong, nobody loves a shiny new object more than a photographer, and every time I read about a new camera or a new lens, I mentally go through what I loosely refer to as my "budget". But I digress. This is not a product review. And yet, and yet......

I refer you to an article sent to me by my friend Doctor Dave: Canon announced that it has produced a 250-megapixel sensor that could, if they darn well wanted to, fit into a consumer grade DSLR camera. Their own description of it reads that this sensor is capable of "...distinguishing the lettering on the side of an airplane flying at a distance of approximately 18 km (11 miles) from the shooting location." And who hasn't ever wanted to do that. Obviously (I hope) this is more useful technology for law enforcement and engineering than for us studio types and, as Dr. D pointed out to me, who the heck has a lens capable of resolving 250 megapixels? Even Canon is mum on that point, but who cares. I'd happily jack up the RAM in the old Macbook and give it a whirl.
But wait, there's more.

I have also recently come across an online report of a 3.2 giga-pixel camera currently under construction. Giga. As in billion. The math geek in me is wrapping my brain around what I calculate a single file size to be (somewhere south of 10 gigabytes, yes?) while my brain ponders the astronomical possibilities: the report states that this camera will potentially record more galaxies than there are people on earth. No mention of the cost yet, and I'm pretty certain the good folks at DP Review aren't going to be writing about it. But's it's pretty damn cool, if you ask me.

At some point -- like now, maybe -- it's hard to think about any of this in the context of photography. I guess a more accurate descriptor would be imaging technology, even though that sounds awfully sterile and antiseptic, but that's the romance of rocketry for you. If we get to take a peek under the universe's blankets, I'm all in.

It beats taking pictures of airplanes, even from 18 km (11 miles) away.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Reality And Its Discontents ~

Recently I've been reading -- and re-reading -- an online article about the nature of contemporary photography by a man named Steven Mayes. He makes an elegant argument that it is somehow a radically different thing today than it was in the past, that "digital capture quietly but definitively severed the optical connection with reality." My meager blog-o-graphs here can do it little justice, you should read it yourself ( but, like all things photographic and with fresh coffee close by, it sets my mind off to the races. And what it's racing toward is the question of just how much reality did photography ever communicate in the first place? My though is, it never did.

For centuries, painters were looked to to provide visual authority. They were the press photographers of their day, in a sense. What did the King look like? What did those mountains out west look like? People trusted their accuracy and were informed by what they saw. But we know better now, and they should have known better then, too. Perhaps deep down inside they did. The King wasn't the Ã¼bermensch astride a gallant horse; he was just another grumpy guy who needed his coffee in the morning (and who can't relate to that?). And those magnificent Albert Bierstadt paintings of the unexplored west, which utterly dazzled 19th-centtury eyes, were, well ... pure fantasy.

There are some who argue that the invention of photography freed painting from the the burden of visual reportage, thus making possible the eventual rise of modern, non-representational movements. Ok, I'll buy that. Where else would Impressionism come from? People went from relying on the "truth" of oil on canvas to the "truth" of colorless images on paper and glass. But here's the point: either way, it was always one person's attempt to define a singular point in time, using the technology available at the time.  I think it always told us more about the practitioner than the practice itself. We view an image through the lens of our own lives; whatever reality we may find therein is a construct of our own making. Photographs are not statements, nor even suggestions; they are mirrors.

And me? I'm constitutionally incapable of just letting a photograph be. I'll work that poor bastard to death until it starts to resemble some state of mind that I find agreeable. I always did that; digital technology just gives me wider options, but options were there all along. And reality? It's all in my mind.

But it's in yours, too.