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.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Future Is Hanging Around Here Someplace ~

Let's establish this right off the bat -- I'm the world's worst prognosticator. Nostradamus I'm not. All the cocky predictions I made in my youth, about anything, have all been wildly off. When I first encountered personal computers, for example, I figured they might be useful in helping me organize my baseball card collection. How could I have seen they'd replace my darkroom, and that I'd be perfectly cool with that? And I'm sure it's not just me: where are the flying cars we were promised? So when I opened my laptop the other day and read the exciting headline The Future Of Photography, well boy howdy, was I curious to find out or what?

Turns out that particular story was actually an ad for iPhone lenses (one of which I already own, it seems) so I was somewhat miffed at not being transported to a new dimension. But it got me interested in stirring the tea leaves, so I poured some more coffee and headed into the unknown: what, dear Google, is the future of photography? I was not disappointed.

Undreamed-of new products and techniques, software and hardware, were on display for me to digest, but I wasn't really interested in all that. What caught my eye were the articles about new ways of seeing, and different ways to reflect upon reality that photography may offer us. These are truly revolutionary ideas. We've gotten into the habit of allowing photographs to mean something real to us when in fact they are contrivances, the artifacts created when we use technology to make an image. As we move into the future (at light speed, by the way) the totality of photography's ever-changing syntax will be overwhelming, but I bet we'll hardly notice. Our acceptance of what is real will adapt right along with it.

James Burke, one of the world's most influential science historians, wrote in his 1978 book Connections that not only do we not know the future, we can't know the future. The progression of time is non-linear: things that happen now effect the things that will happen later, and the process is utterly random. But I take heart in this. Nothing is pre-ordained; no outcome is inevitable. That's exciting stuff, even -- especially -- for a photographer in the digital age. One of those articles suggested we'll make up new rules as we go along, but I say, Rules? We don't need no stinkin' rules. Do we?

So what the heck, here's my stab at it: with every new piece of software, every new app, every new device (my iPhone and I are staring at each other across the room) we'll take image-making across uncharted borders, and define reality anew at every step. The "camera" will become as quaint as the "telephone."  Everyone will be able to create an image and then adjust it to conform to their own very individual way of seeing the world. Most will be mundane, but some will blow our socks off. That's largely how it is even right now, so that's really not that daring of a prediction, I guess. But however photography morphs, it will always be startling and unexpected, challenging, troubling, eternally engaging. Its unfamiliarity will be warmly welcoming.

Oh, and robots. Robots will do our dishes.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Photographing Rocks ~

I look for solace in the small places: the space between paragraphs, the pause between notes. And in photographs. Not to put too melodramatic a spin on it, but it's where I've tried to keep my head these past few days. It's been hard, and when I've tried to look at my photos, and open them up to do work on them, my head just hasn't been there. And that, mes amis, makes so sense at all. Knock it off.

So I sat down to my blog today to engage my stream-of-consciousness hyperdrive, and the effort so far has had a palliative effect on my mood (bourbon, by the way, has been no help whatsoever and God knows I tried). But my mind keeps going back, over and over, to that mentor of my youth and life-long inspiration, Ansel Adams. And I think I know why.

There's something deeper in his story, something more compelling in his message than the lovely black & white photographs hanging in museums, and it has something important to teach us even now, maybe especially now. What keeps going through my head are the accusations by his contemporaries that as the world was falling apart, he was taking pictures of rocks. True, as World War II was erupting, he took some of his most beautiful photos, but he also immersed himself in a project of photographing the Japanese internment camps: the harsh conditions, the faces, the stories. He shows us that the twin pillars of his passionate causes -- environmentalism and social justice -- are inextricably and intimately bound up together, and he gave to them a powerful voice. He wasn't avoiding the great challenges of his day, he was meeting them head-on.

My anxieties, my inactivity, are entirely of my own doing. The recent events of this unparalleled election have disconnected me from the very thing that has always held my place in the universe. Yes, the world is both beautiful and ugly, and Adams understood that. The yin and yang of beauty and ugliness is the central fact of our lives. If you and I, like Adams, keep trying to find those beautiful places and giving voice to them, it'll help make sense of most everything else.

Rocks and all.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Changing the Color of My Eyes ~

Interesting weekend. I had given myself a personal challenge to go out and shoot in a way I had not done before, which is odd, because it was a way I used to shoot all the time. Bear with me; it's complicated. You see, ever since I started shooting with a digital camera -- going on close to 16 years now -- I had never set it up to shoot in black & white. With all the creative potential available in editing software, much more even now than back then, I began my long fascination with all things color. I could occasionally convert a color file to a black & white image, but it never started out that way. It just wasn't how I normally saw things.

And as I say, it was odd because for many, many years I was a dedicated black & white film shooter, wholly dedicated to all things Kodak and Edwal. The slow disappearance of high-silver papers and some of the great films coincided with the arrival of accessible digital photography, so the wheels were greased to speed my conversion. But again, oddly, a black & white ethos didn't come along for the ride. It was color, holding out her thumb and showing a little thigh, that I picked up right from the start. And she's only gotten better looking.

But the way modern digital cameras are designed nowadays is intriguing, and my little mirrorless is no exception. There were several ways to set it for a monochromatic jpeg, and I set mine to shoot as with a yellow filter, which is how I would most often go about shooting a fresh roll of film. I gamely set forth to wander the hills and valleys of southwest Portland, and landed up on the Lewis & Clark campus for a while, too. I was filled with doubts; this is, after all, the most colorful time of year in Portland. (Coward that I am, I kept my iPhone tucked into my front pocket, lest the color-panic became overwhelming. I make no pretense of photo-manliness). But I was able to force myself to look past all that and concentrate on contrasts and textures, forms and values. It brought back pleasant memories.

But truth be told, I missed the experience of black & white photography, the sickly sweet smell of the hypo, the slippery-slimey touch of Dektol on the fingers, the hypnotizing hum of the Thomas safelight. Or maybe I only remember the good parts: there's nothing more humbling than spending hours on a print only to see it irreparably stain in the toning bath.... ok, maybe I don't miss it all that much.

But nuts to all that. This was a fun project and I enjoyed the challenge. I'll do this more often; it can only help improve my skills and my mood. When you change the way you look at things, you can change what you see, and it's a beautiful world out there hiding behind that thin veneer of color. Besides, it's almost November, so it's pretty much going to be nothing but shades of gray around here anyway. It's why we drink so much coffee.

Black, preferably.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

All The Glossy Photos ~

A few days ago we had sunshine -- possibly the last we'll see until spring thaw -- so out I was, getting a nice walk in, and happened to show up near one of those big-box book stores. Portland is rightly famous for great bookstores, but this was one of those chain outlets, which I'm not such a big fan of, but it had coffee. So there. Latte in hand, I wandered the extensive magazine rack, looking to see what photography magazines would catch my eye, and was both amazed and depressed at the ...sameness... of them all.

What I mean is simply this: they were largely indistinguishable from each other. They seemed mainly to be just vehicles for advertisers, anyway. I wanted to see photos that knocked my socks off, but there weren't a lot of those. Portraits, especially, are my passion, and I wanted to be dazzled, but most were pretty mundane -- even the nudes (which were mostly cheesecake anyway) and of course, the ubiquitous bikini poses. But alongside all those featureless photography magazines were several art magazines, and they just popped right out at me. One in particular was so lovely I purchased it on the spot: the October issue of New Realism: Contemporary Takes On The Figure.

The portraits that were made on canvas revealed all the qualities that were painfully missing in those photography pages: immediate, intimate, innovative, and oh so rich and gorgeous.  Some were designed to enchant the viewer, and some were meant to disturb, but all were meant to be important and vital. I found them inspiring. So my question is: what do they know that we don't?

Frankly, I'm not sure. There's a fearlessness that may be tied to not being tied to the senior and wedding market, but that only goes so far. The best work of my professional colleagues rivals any of those I saw in that artist's magazine. They are just as willing to innovate and push the envelope, they just don't show up in the popular press very often. And that's a shame.

I hope that the next generation of photographers is influenced by their work, and not by the bikini pictures and reviews of the latest camera bag in your typical photography magazine. I hope they also study those wonderful portraits on paper and canvas, and take from them some important lessons. I hope my colleagues find their way to share, inspire, and instruct. It's how I learned, and continue to.

And you just can't get that from a magazine.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

How To Know What's What ~

I scour the interwebs every day, looking for great photographs and great photographers. So when I came across an online interview with SebastiĆ£o Salgado, I was just as delighted as could be. Salgado's work has been hugely influential to an entire generation of photographers, and although he shuns traditional descriptors like "photojournalist", his photographs, like those of W. Eugene Smith before him, are riveting in their storytelling. So when asked what his advice would be for young photographers today, his answer was likewise compelling:

"If you're young and have the time, go and study. Study anthropology, sociology, economy,  geopolitics. Study so that you're actually able to understand what you're photographing. What you can photograph and what you should photograph."

Why does this strike such a chord in me? Simple; it's the same advice given me by a remarkable teacher who mentored me and inspired much in my photography career. I would have loved, when I was a kid out of high school, to have gone off to college to study photography, but frankly I didn't know that such programs even existed. And as I look back now, I'm glad for that. In college I studied a lot of art and art history for sure, but my curriculum was pretty traditional. I had the usual round of the social and life sciences, history and math (and beer; it was the University of Wyoming, after all), and then graduate school where I did research in information theory. I kid you not.

I dropped out partway through my undergraduate program to initiate an apprenticeship in a commercial studio before continuing on a year later; my photography career and my education have thus been inextricably connected ever since.

So why am I telling you all this? Do I think it's made me a better photographer? Maybe, I hope so, but that's not the point. We need our storytellers, and storytelling requires a broad worldview. They can be powerful, human, truth-to-power; they can be Salgado. They can also, and just as importantly, be personal and intimate: a poem, a watercolor, my portrait of you. But they need to be informed.

Truth is, those voices in our head are worth listening to; they urge us to explore and create, to tell new stories and re-tell the old ones in new ways, to add our own voice to the chorus.

We're waiting to hear from you.



Thursday, September 22, 2016

Brush Strokes In The Air ~

Last week I used the word "painterly" in describing a photo I had posted on Facebook. Normally, this would not be the cause of much excitement, but that's not how my life works. I got caught up in a conversation with a couple of my younger colleagues who were unfamiliar with that word, especially in the context of a photograph. Was it derogatory? complimentary? To help clarify, I assured them that it was, um... both. I'm helpful that way.

Coming of age in photography in the 1970's put me squarely in the Ansel Adams - Group f64 era. You've seen these photos, beautiful and powerful every one of them, largely black & white, and largely large. As in, big negatives, big prints. It was modernist at its core: crisp tonal values and a brilliant sharpness-to-infinity with an unstructured approach to natural composition and arrangement. There are some who thought that this was the ultimate expression of reality, but no. It wasn't. But what it did do was distinguish modern photography from it's soft-focus, pictorial origins. Those old photographs were painterly; the modern photograph is not.

But does this hold hard and true in the digital era? I have my doubts. I no longer have my medium  and large-format cameras, nor Tri-X film, nor my darkroom. I'm forced to look at the world with a different set of eyes, so to speak, and to adjust my vision accordingly, and digital technologies allow for a practically unlimited adjustment. This is photography's third big wave, one with an enormous potential for experimentation. And no, I'm not necessarily talking about being able to turn your photo into an oil painting at the push of a button (although that is sometimes so cool), but hopefully something that reaches far down inside of you. You know what I'm talking about.

So, No. I don't want my photographs to look like paintings; I didn't back was I was studying art, and I don't now. But things are different, and I want the freedom to express photography on my terms now. I find myself adding layer upon layer of my own vision, messing with color, with texture, with tonal values, with the voices in my head. Is it still a photograph? Yes. Is it...painterly? Sometimes, but so what. I'm an art-anarchist: follow those voices in your own head, and no one else's. They won't lead you astray.

Well, most of the time, anyway.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Keep Calm and Carry On ~

The new iPhone 7 was just recently announced, and being the incurable iPhone enthusiast that I am, I feel compelled to say a word or two on the subject. And here's why. Ever since that announcement, the interwebs have gone a little crazy, enlivening even my own personal Facebook account, with a lot of end-of-the-imaging-world hand wringing. Bear in mind most of my internet connections and Facebook friends are imaging professionals, many of them in the camera manufacturing biz. Among them there is much rending of garments and wailing and gnashing of teeth. I even saw a "this is a sad day, indeed" post from one of them.

Clearly my people need me.

To be honest, I can't get too worked up about it one way or the other. Their fear -- and there seems much of it to go around -- is that the high-quality camera in the new iPhone will spell doom to the point-and-shoot digital camera market. Well, duh. But let's be honest: that doom was foretold seven or so years ago when decent cameras were first put into smartphones, just no one's gotten around to taking it very seriously until now. And to their end, I say: so what? The great camera manufacturers are free to explore the realms of imaging technology unimaginable just a few years ago, unfettered by the need to stay competitive in the consumer point-and-shoot market. Frees up a lot of cash, folks. Tell me that's not a good thing.

I know you're dying to find out: am I going to get the new iPhone 7? Well, I don't know; probably, just not right away. I haven't even seen one yet; as of this writing only the smallest handful of earthlings have. But I have good equipment already. I have lovely Canon glass in the studio, and a mirrorless Fuji to get serious with outside. And I always...always... have my iPhone 6s with me the rest of the time, so I am, as they say, good to go.

So to my Facebook friend I will say that, yes, there are truly sad things one can say in photography these days, but they're not what you think. Say what you will about the late Mr. Jobs,  but when he reminded us that the best camera in the world is the one you have with you, that is what changed the world. Because the saddest phrase ever uttered, in the long history of our beloved medium, is this: ".... darn, I wish I had my camera."

Just breaks my heart.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Zen of Over-Complicating ~

After taking some time off and trying (unsuccessfully) to accomplish things the past couple weeks, I'm brought back to my blog to make some observations about an online video I watched last week. The video was ominously titled 20 False Facts That Even Professionals Believe To Be True. I should be quick to point out that the "professionals" in question were photographers, just to be clear. But overlooking the obvious oxymoron (or maybe not; John Oliver often emphasizes "true facts", so there may be more than one kind of fact, in fact) the video was a revelation. Of sorts.

The video, hosted by one Tony Northrup in Modern Lens Magazine, covered a wide range of issues, such as a lens' "sweet spot" (as related to sharpness), the Reciprocal Rule, crop factors, f-stops, infinity focus, and a lot more. All busy, arcane, complicated minutia...and I loved every minute of it. I am, of course, an unrepentant gear-head, and a bit of a math geek, albeit somewhat clumsy at it.  There was a time, back in my old studio days before the ubiquity of automation, where these skills were useful, even necessary.

Speaking for myself, however, this commotion can be a problem. The mesmerizing complexity of technology, sweet siren song though it is, is often an obstacle to making a beautiful photograph. Creativity requires simplicity; photography often demands complexity. Ours is a technical field, after all; it's not canvas-and-brush. We are forced to be cognizant of -- and familiar with -- a lens' sweet-spot, and crop factors, and infinity focus. And much, much more. It's tough to wean ourselves away from it.

I'm trying to be comfortable with the largeness of less, and I think I'm getting away with it. I love my iPhone. I love my mirrorless Fuji. I love the aperature-preferred setting. I love simple, accessible software. I love making my eyes do the work. I love that I'm starting to feel my way into a photograph more than working my way into it. Most of all, I love that it's a process and that it's something I can get better at.

While my worldview has expanded to include most of the universe, my vision is honing down to a sweet-spot of its own: this moment, this place, this light.

And that's a fact.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Mist and Sand ~

Is it the mists of time? the sands of time? One suggests a lack of clarity as we look back; the other, of unstoppable passage. Either one will play havoc on a camera, but they also do a number on our minds. It's like our own personal Uncertainty Principle: if we dig deeply into one, we know less about the other.

I'm brought to this odd rambling by the news of my mother's passing in the early hours this morning. Though not unexpected (she was near 93, bless her heart) it was nonetheless a tearful reunion with my memories. And a precious few old pictures. I heard a talk by a philosopher a while back who suggested that we don't really remember the past, but instead we recall our memories of the past, and that each new recollection builds upon many layers of increasing imperfection. So of course I think of photographs.

There are a handful of photos from my mother's childhood, like the one above (she's the cutie on the right). Someone in the family -- an eccentric uncle, perhaps -- must have had a folding Kodak or something because there are a few lovely old images. There's even a photo of my grandmother and her brothers taken shortly after their arrival here from Mexico, probably around 1916 or so. But of my father's family, there are almost none, so the stories of their lives in the old Pacific Northwest, and even earlier in Canada, have no snapshots to freshen recollections. Sad indeed, but the many pictures I've taken over the years of both mom and dad will hopefully keep their memories alive for my granddaughter, and her kids, and even theirs.

My most prized possessions on this earth are the photo albums of my two children; if the house were to catch fire I'd rescue those and little else.  And now with grandchildren, that drive to preserve those moments is more compelling than ever. Memories are imperfect indeed, mine probably more than most. If I can only remember my memories of the past, then I want photographic evidence. I will never forget my mother's face; I have it right here in front of me for all time.

But philosophers be damned. Time does go on, of course; we watch our children grow and our parents die as we ourselves walk ever onward. Somewhere along the way is that place we want to pause for a while and make whatever memories we can, pleasant or not, before it gets too late.

While we're there, let's take some pictures.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Extraordinarily Ordinary ~

My guru Richard recently complimented me on one of my photographs. In particular, he noted the way that I made something quite ordinary look much more dramatic than what might have been suggested at first glance. But it made me think, and what I thought was, well, this is probably true for nearly all photography, no? I mean, sure, we've seen images of extraordinary events and extraordinary people, but when we take up our cameras and sally forth, that's not what we're looking for. If it was, we'd be missing the point.

It's an extraordinary experience, photography. There's nothing normal, nothing natural, about taking a photograph. First of all, there's that whole act of seeing, of being totally in the moment, observing that one point and eliminating all else, fixing it in your mind, and then -- only then -- performing the very unnatural act of bringing a camera to your eye. It's random, it can be anything: raindrops on a flower, a beautiful smile, a busy street -- or maybe just the sunlight streaming in through my kitchen window. Anyway, I think all the arts must be like this; putting paint on canvas or typing words on paper are efforts every bit as extraordinary and unnatural.

We train ourselves to believe otherwise, but really, the challenge is to avoid becoming complacent, and that's easier said than done. Me, I spend nearly all my waking moments looking around me, seeing those perfect and deliciously imperfect moments, taking little mental photographs. And no, it won't drive you to drink, not that there's anything wrong with that, but you do end up spending every waking moment adjusting your vision.

 So when I'm walking around in the rain with my camera, or even shooting a job in the studio, I may want the motions to be smooth and seamless, but I also want to lose my balance just a little bit. I see things better that way.


Thursday, July 14, 2016

Does Size Still Matter? ~

It's a conversation that goes back to the beginning of time. If you measure time in pixels, anyway. I was there at the beginning, before the turn of the century (I always wanted to say that) and I'm still around to start an argument. We wanted bigger sensors then, more pixels, and we still do. If it seems to matter even now, it's because we still can't help but compare this to our experiences back in the day when we were shooting on those lovely big negatives. It's an uneasy transition, and sometimes quite unconscious. My brother Jim, a remarkable life-long landscape shooter who certainly knows his way around the upper echelons of digital cameras, sent me some unworldly and spectacular black and white images he had recently taken of storm clouds over a Minnesota lake, with an innocent after-thought thrown in: makes me wish I had a large-format camera. Me too, bro...maybe.

Because back then, size really really did matter.  A bigger negative gave you an image with more clarity and more detail than a little one. Medium-format was universal, and when I shot my Hasselblad or Mamiya with the mirror locked up, the developed negatives were sublime, and their prints were pure magic. Landscape people commonly trudged about with their 4x5 cameras, looking all Ansel Adamsy, making black & white masterpieces. And as you can see from the oddly out-of-place selfie above, I even sported an 8x10 camera for a while. Let's just say it was my Edward Weston phase.  But let me tell you, an 8x10 sheet of perfectly exposed and processed Tri-X, contacted-printed on a sheet of Brovira,...well it was, um, groovy. (The only 35mm we shot were Kodachrome or Ektachrome slides. A blog post for another day). Bigger, better, and yes, heavier. Way heavier.

So how much of this translates into the digital world we know and love today? Probably more than it needs to, because just as with a large negative, the size alone affords us little advantage all by itself. There's too much else at stake, not the least of which are good lenses and strong vision. And as sensors get larger (and better), the architecture of cameras gets smaller and smaller. I'm lost anymore without my little mirrorless Fuji, and my iPhone? if I could carry it into my dreams, I probably would. I made this lake scene on my little 6s. Pixels be damned.

The point? Use what you have, worry more about your style and vision and bank account. Pixels don't come cheap, but great art can -- and usually is -- created on modest technology and modest budgets. The rest is just bragging rights.

Besides, mine's smaller than yours.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

A Color of Black & White ~

Chalk it up to old age if you like, or just a trip down memory lane, but I've been thinking a lot about black & white photography recently. Most of my photography career was dominated by the practice, in the lab and behind the camera. In fact, both were necessary components of the magical black & white arts: you shot it, and you developed and printed it. Along the way were incredibly expressive tools and techniques. Sometimes I miss that, smells and all.

What amazes me to this day is the remarkable range of color and tone that were possible in the craft we simply think of as "black & white" photography. Some of it had to do with the variety of papers we had: silver bromide papers, some with a barita base that increased the "whiteness", and some smooth, very warm-tone chloro-bromide papers. The names may not mean much to you now, but I assure you they still resonate with me: Agfa Brovira, Oriental Seagull, Kodak Ektalure. Geez, I can't even remember what day it is half the time, but somehow I can conjure up clear memories of these, and a lot more.

And toners; we had tons of toners. Chemical toners were largely used as a means of increasing image permanence in the photographic print, but they also imparted a fine, subtle coloring of the image as well. Selenium was common; it produced a cooling, slightly purple-ish tone to high-silver papers which was lovely to behold. And everyone, of course, is familiar with the warm brown tones of sepia, often used to give prints an "old fashioned" look. I rarely liked it. But you get the point: a combination of paper and chemistry could result in a remarkable range of possibilities.

So let's cut right to the chase: can the modern digital photographer find love and happiness in black & white? Well, yes, maybe even more. There's some mind-blowing, incredibly beautiful photography going on out there. And onOne Software, for example, re-creates the look of actual black & white films, some of which disappeared from the market years ago. How cool is that? But for me, the great black & white experience can't ever be fully duplicated. I miss the cloister of the darkroom too much, but I'm not complaining. I think I'm finding more expression with my photography than I ever have, it's just...different.

It's more colorful.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A Rule Of Thirds ~

Chalk it up to twelve years of Catholic education, but when I hear the word "rules",  I just kind of ... bristle. Yet I was hardly fazed when I was studying art and photography and "the rule of thirds" (along with many other theorems, constructs, proclamations, and paradigms) was displayed on the chalk board. It was the foundation of all the was beautiful, they said. It was passed down from our elders. It was dogma. And I ate it up with the passion of the true believer. (Remember, Catholic school, nuns, the works).  And the truth is, it still guides me and informs my work, but it just doesn't... rule me anymore.

I guess the trouble started a couple years after I began working in studios when, after a steady diet of large-format film and the occasional roll of 6x7 medium-format (and, not so commonly at the time, the ungodly 3:2 format of the 35mm camera) I was introduced to the lovely, simple, gorgeous square of the Hasselblad. Now truth be told, I was taught to compose loosely with it, so that a rectangular-formatted image could still easily be cropped and printed from it. But phooey on that. The perfect square I saw in the viewfinder was nature at its best, rules be damned. Granted, it's an occasional treat and not appropriate every time and every portrait. But when it is, it's sublime. My portrait of Whitney C would have no power or grace composed in any other manner. It's just how I see things sometimes.

The rule of thirds (and the corresponding principle of "power-points" in a composition) is of course a viable artistic standard that can lead us down many a beautiful path. We ignore it at our peril. Honestly, I'm not an anarchist; I can conform to convention and "rules" with the best of them (again, think nuns.....) and we need to be mindful of their usefulness as guides, lest our work dissolves into some sort of expressionistic garble. But we can turn it on its head from time to time. A slight bend of the rule, or an odd juxtaposition within it, can make a more compelling and powerful composition -- or a disaster. It's a thin line that divides them, but it's delightfully fun to live on that edge.

So I figure, it's ok to learn and follow the rules, as long as you make up a few of your own as you go along. After all, it's your vision, your statement, your story. And nobody can tell you how to do that.

Not even the nuns.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Trying To Get Back Home ~

Let me tell ya folks, nostalgia ain't what it used to be. We're reminded of this every time we think we have it figured out, or at least I am. This past week was a case in point. My big brother and little sister and I met up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming for a week of photography up in the Tetons. Jim and I get together every year for a photographic excursion (and a little tequila) and the addition this year of my portrait photographer sister made a very special family event. And the Tetons hold a very special place in our family's heart and memories.

We spent a lot of time up there, going back to the 1960's and '70's. It was probably our dad's favorite place to hang out for a summer and paint; the barn you see here, out on Mormon Row, featured prominently in many of his watercolors. And for me, too: I spent many seasons there in the '80's as well, photographing landscapes for a studio I worked for, and conducting photography workshops. I recall it being more rustic then, not nearly as refined and developed as it is now. I looked for some of my favorite haunts and watering holes which, predictably, are long gone. That's progress for you, and tourists. But considering that this is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places on earth, you can hardly blame them.

Thomas Wolfe famously said you can't go home again, and I imagine he tried doing just that. But for my brother and I, home is an elusive concept. We moved a lot growing up, and so attachments and sentiments were more fleeting. You make do with what you have, where you are. Maybe this is why, for nearly our entire adult lives, we have been so passionate about photography. If photographs can be developed over time and made permanent, then maybe memories can, too. It's a comforting notion.

It reminds me of home.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Ghost In The Gallery ~

My recent trip to Chicago was memorable in so many ways, not least of which was my pilgrimage to the Art Institute. It's one of the world's truly great art museums. I regularly haunt museums and art galleries; this one is Mecca, and this was my hajj. And I'm hardly exaggerating, for in any museum like this (though there aren't many), I make sure to seek out one of the great influences of my career and my art: the great portrait painter John Singer Sargent. If my trip to Chicago had been only an afternoon to see the few paintings of his on display, I would still have been a happy camper.

Let me back up a little bit, say about 40 years or so. I was a young student just learning my craft, earnestly training in the art of studio portrait photography. The city I was apprenticing in was also where my dad had his art gallery, so along with my technical studies I fell under the sway of some incredible portrait painters. They made in watercolor, oils, and even pastels the kinds of portraits that influence me to this day. And something even more: they introduced me to the world of art and artists that influenced them. This was powerful stuff to a small-town kid. To understand the power of light and shadow, sure, study Rembrandt, Caravaggio, the masters. But to understand the modern sensibilities of a portrait -- perceptive, intimate -- you study Sargent.

Photography is my life and my craft; it has its own trajectory that I follow like a bullet on a beam of light. I'm still trying to get good at it. Although I wander around these days taking pictures of darn near everything I see, the portrait is still my passion of choice. And if you're serious about what you do, you draw on the inspirations that have shaped your direction, that have moved throughout time until they hit your eye. John Singer Sargent is that for me, but there are many, many others: painters and poets, sculptors, singers, playwrights and storytellers -- and photographers. We pick up where they left off.

And they're hanging out at the museum.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Plato's Travelogues, Part IV ~

Travel, if we are to believe Twain, is "... fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness..." and this doesn't even take into account the Red Line on the Chicago "L".  Or any number of other public conveyances that are just sure to test your resolve in this manner.  But photography is all about adventure; we need to seek out those places yet unseen to fix our gaze and capture our imagination. The little annoyances come along for the ride.

I've just returned from a week in the Windy City, which, as luck would have it, was more of a rainy one. But this little annoyance is hardly a deterrent; in fact, the urban landscape in gray and rainy conditions is the answer to a photographer's prayers, if we were so inclined to implore the almighty. I'm all about mood and atmosphere; the sunshine be damned. But as he giveth, he taketh away, oh yeth; for my Cubs game was rained out as payment for my presumption. This, I imagine, is how the world works.

But let's finish up Twain's observation of travel's benefits: "...Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." Indeed. I was raised with but the loosest of connections, and have thus been a wanderer all my life. Airport security lines, crowded public transportation, and rained-out ballgames is the price of admission; minor annoyances all. My feet are in motion, and my camera is charged and ready.

And brother, Chicago is beautiful in the rain.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Semi-Naked Truth ~

I came into this world naked, and, presumably, I'll exit in much the same way. Otherwise I totally rock the shorts-and-Hawaiian shirt vibe. (Is that on fleek, or just fleek? It's so hard to keep up.) But I come to this innocent observation honestly and forthrightly, because nakedness figured prominently in my photo-world last week, and I'm not talking about mine. I had the opportunity to do a nude study in the studio and, like all studio projects, it was compelling and challenging. And thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyable.

But what is it about nudes -- female nudes in particular -- that visual artists are so attracted to? We could go on at length about the subtle mysteries of the female form, the refined visual aesthetic of lighting, mood, and texture, even the unmistakable eros inherent in the subject. Important, even necessary considerations, to be sure, but still somehow short of the mark. And maybe that's just it; maybe we over-think it to the point of abstraction.

In my case, it was the opportunity to work with a beautiful woman who had some seriously beautiful tattoos. Body adornment -- piercings, ink -- fascinates me, and has been an on-going studio project for a long time. And as I think about, this drives closer to the truth about the nude aesthetic for me: it's the living, breathing, human story somehow captured in the camera, and not a static discussion of the parts.

This is what drives me. This fascinates me. This is the intersection of our lives, and it celebrates the vulnerabilities, passions, and mysteries of both the photographer and the photographed; it is here that powerful stories are being told. All portraiture is this for me, but a nude amplifies the nature of that connection a hundredfold.

We don't stay long in this world, naked or otherwise. Along the way we leave behind the bent twigs that marked our passage; for me, these are photographs. I hope that I caught not only your image, but also your story, for therein lies mine as well.

And mine is totally on fleek.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

If I Could Find The Perfect Salad, I Would Know The Universe ~

So here's my question: what do you feel when you look at a photograph? And I mean, really look, get absorbed in it, let it wash right over you. And not necessarily in a gallery, or a magazine, or online (though god knows looking at photos -- any and pretty much all photos -- is something I am shamelessly addicted to). No, I mean your photos. If something drove you to a particular scene, made you pick up the camera and make an exposure, and then dawdle and fuss with it in the darkroom or at the computer, then what was it? Did it somehow move you? Do you think any about it? Or does it even matter?

Well, I for one think it somehow does, but I didn't always think that way. Maybe it comes with the years (of which I probably have more than my fair share) and the fact that I mostly shoot for myself these days, and turns out I'm a demanding bastard of a customer. But the events of the past couple weeks, stressful and heartbreaking, have left me in an unusually contemplative mood, and it is here that I turn to the meditative balm of taking pictures. And looking at them.

Interestingly, the excitement I feel when I've taken what I think is a great photo is rarely there to greet me when I open it up on the laptop and start tuning it. But not disappointment either, no. My initial performances in Photoshop are somewhat desultory (sizing, usually, and perhaps a schmutz of sharpening), and I have to put it away and let it percolate for a while. When I come back to it days, or even weeks later, lo and behold there it is waiting for me with a bouquet of flowers and a guilty smile. Where've you been, sailor?  Now, and only now, can I really look at it, be absorbed by it, and let it wash over me. And yes, I think it matters.

The secrets to doing photography are no more evident to me than they are to you, but I think they boil down to this: look both ways, be kind to strangers, hold your loved ones close, buy a good lens.

And now look what you've done.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

On The Hazards of Clement Weather ~

We had a pleasant coastal adventure last week, replete with cameras, wine, and abundant sunshine. My sister came to visit, and along with her two lovely daughters and my wife, the watercolor painter, we rented a condo in Agate Beach, which is near Newport on the Oregon coast. Seemed everyone was in total shock at our great and good fortune, as we happened to have hit that perfect window of opportunity: the first multi-day span of time since, apparently, the Jurassic period wherein the sun was bright, the temperature was warm, and the seas were calm; an early-spring trifecta that the locals would have you believe will never occur again. There was much rejoicing in the land, except, of course, for me. This is not what I came for.

But I am being selfish; it is exactly what my traveling companions hoped for. My little sister, who owns a portrait photography business, lives in the untangled wilderness of suburban Denver, whose denizens not only experience up to 300 sunny days a year, but come to regard it as some sort of birthright. So what do they know. My nieces, young and lovely in an Ipanema-like way, need the sun to survive. A year in Oregon could easily prove fatal. And my wife is a painter; sunshine is Giverny. But sunshine just doesn't do it for me.

Let me make this clear, I'm a downright cheerful guy. I'm only thinking photographically. It seems to me that when the sun shines brightly, I end up taking pretty pictures and maybe not a lot more. And like I said, that's not what I came for. The colors are too easily blown away; the shadows impenetrable. It doesn't even have to be gloomy or foggy (although extra points if it is!) but even a little overcast reveals so much more about the world than we are sometimes prepared to see. These kinds of images are (for me, anyway) more personal, more intuitive, and often reflect inner states that surprise the hell out of me. As I've said here many times, art is autobiography. If I'm going to share my images and thus my stories with you, then let them be candid, a little unsettling, maybe even difficult or hard to fathom, but never, dear God, boring.

The two photos I have posted here, one from that recent coastal trip and the other from about a year ago, are pretty much what I'm talking about. Don't get me wrong, shooting with my sister in the bright, beautiful sun of the Oregon coast was delightful, and I'm glad for that opportunity. But standing beneath the St. Johns Bridge as the fog was rolling in was something altogether different. Call it what you will: contemplative? introspective? moody? somber? Hell, you can call it a taxi if you want. And that's the point. One is the static (albeit lovely) image of the identifiable, the other carries the unremarkable stigma of the nameless. It's downright compelling. That's what I enjoy most about photography.

And that's what I came for.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Little Techno-Talk For A Change ~

I've been attending to my blog for a long time now, and people who follow it tend to ask me the same questions fairly often;  1 -- how (and why) go you go for a particular "look" in the photos you post, and 2 -- what's wrong with you, anyway?  The answer to that first question will be the subject of today's post. As to the second, well, who has that kind of time.

When I shoot with my Canon or mirrorless Fuji, I tend usually to shoot in RAW, and will open that file in Adobe Capture Raw (I'm still using CS6) to resize and maybe tweak with an adjustment or two. My CS6 has the onOne Perfect Suite plug-ins, and that's where I'll go to town and really work that poor bastard. I like being surprised, and there is abundant serendipity in every photo you take. I will, more often than not, drag that file down into a painting program call Arista Impresso Pro, which would actually be a good name for a coffee shop, if you ask me. I use it to create a completely new "painterly" image and then open both it and the original photo as layers in Photoshop, with the painting layer on top, and proceed to erase almost all of it away. I want to be left with just the impression of the painting (as with the photo up above) and maybe some interestingly altered tones and highlights. Depends on my mood, I guess.

If it's a photo made on my iPhone, I'll almost always work it in Snapseed before I import it into Photoshop and proceed onward. The image immediately above is one such example. A different look, a different feeling. I don't think this is anything new with digital photography, either. It may have been chemistry instead of computers, but when I worked with black & white film I spend just as much time and effort in the darkroom making that image come alive for me. And speaking of black & white:

I mean, who said there was anything "realistic" about a black & white photograph, anyway?

There's a ton of b&w controls in onOne, too; the above image was worked with a filter designed to look much the way old Kodak Panatomic-X looked and felt. Heck, it's been so long I'll have to take their word for it, but it brought back all kinds of warm and fuzzy feels, minus the stained fingers. And that's the point. No one ever took a photograph that showed, without pity and without passion, cold reality, because frankly no one knows just what the hell that is. The process that began when the shutter was tripped ends many, many miles away. There is absolutely nothing in the world that fascinates me more than that journey.

Hey, maybe that's what wrong with me.