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.