War on Photography

War on Photography: Quite possibly one of the most enraging sites I’ve read in a good long while. It documents reports of photographers being harassed for no reason by police, security guards, and even random passersby. If you’re remotely interested in photography or first amendment rights (or, heaven forfend, both), it’s a quick way to raise your blood pressure about 30 points.

Detroit Book Depository

The deteriorating remains of the Detroit Book Depository. Jessica showed me this the other day, thought I’d share, as it’s really pretty impressive. The short version of the story is that they used to use a warehouse system for school books and materials, until a fire broke out, and decimated the building. Due to insurance settlements, they were never allowed to salvage from the building, and it was all left to rot.

HDR Experiments

Seattle Monorail at Night
The Seattle Monorail at Night
Last night, I spent a fair bit of time out and about — simply didn’t feel like going home, for a variety of reasons. I hung out at the coffee shop til they closed, and then took their recommendation on an all night diner, which was delightful, greasy, and good. Jabbered there for a bit, and then I ended up wandering down to downtown Seattle to finally get around to taking some shots for experimenting with High Dynamic Range photography.

For some quick background, let me fill in some details (CS2s “Merge to HDR” doesn’t retain exif data… which makes sense, since it’s a composite of multiple images, so which exif data do you keep?): it’s around 1:45am, on 5th Ave just north of Teatro Zinzanni. For those not aware, Seattle has an elevated monorail system that runs down the middle of 5th Avenue, connecting downtown with Seattle Center, which would be the pylons you’re seeing running down the middle of the street (and providing a handy protection from getting run over while standing in the middle of the street). This particular image is a set of 4 images composited together, each a 1/3 stop apart, with a roughly equal balance between over and under exposed. In hindsight, I wish I’d gone heavier on the under-exposed range, even a full stop apart, and opted for the “proper exposure” to act as my high end. As it was, I ended up dropping a fifth over exposed image from the composite, because I found it too “bright”. I was running at f/22, with an exposure time ranging from 13 to 30 seconds, and using my 17-40mm f/4.

Seattle Monorail at Night with Ghost Nabil
Seattle Monorail at Night with Ghost Nabil
The next set is a composite of around 7 images, of which I dropped two. I decided to play a bit with ghosting (go stand in frame for part of a long exposure). It’s also worth noting that this set had a few cars passing through the frame, which left those delightful light trails on the right side of the image. Again, I was running f/22 with the 17-40, and a range of 13 to 30 seconds per exposure. I’m not entirely sure whether I’ll keep the ghosting (I took two shots at the same exposure, one with ghosting, one without, so it’d be easy enough to alter it without affecting the rest of the composition).

It felt really good to be getting out and about with my camera in the night again. I don’t know why I find it so appealing, but I do. Maybe it’s the introvert in me. In either case, it was rolling past 2am, so I opted to pick up and move over to a different location, further into the city. I’ve been wanting to take some pictures of the Seattle Library for a while now, as it’s this awesome conglomeration of odd angles and glass, right in the heart of downtown Seattle. (How they managed to get the city planners to approve it, I dunno, but I’m very glad they did!) Another nice aspect of doing night photography in the city is that parking is a breeze. No traffic, no passersby, plenty of spots to just kinda pull over and fiddle with things or ponder grabbing the camera. In both of these cases, I was able to park no more than 50 feet from where I took the shots.

Night at the Seattle Public Library
Night at the Seattle Public Library
This first shot is a composite of 6 or so shots, and once again I found myself dropping the higher exposures, ending up with a 4 image composite. Not that you can tell, to be honest — in the case of the Seattle Library shots, frankly I’m not gaining much of anything from the HDR process. The building is already relatively well lit, so I’m not filling detail into shadows or highlights, nor pulling much of anything in the way of a higher saturation of color (even with the heavily orange light of the streetlights). But, I still like the shots, and so I’m sharing them anyway. (This is definitely a picture-heavy post.) Again, f/22, speeds ranging from 15 to 30 seconds, with the 17-40mm. (I should also mention: Canon 5D, running RAW.)

The Seattle Public Library at Night
Seattle Public LIbrary, Night, Exterior
This second shot is similar to the first, though from a slightly different angle that was apparently enough to alter the metering markedly, to the point that I ended up dropping down to f/16 just so I could avoid using the Bulb function, keeping my max exposure length at 30 seconds. Other than that, it’s largely unchanged… half a dozen shots, once again dropping the higher exposures (something to know for the future for the shots I like to take), taken with the Canon 17-40mm f/4. It’s such a neat building! I’d love to get in there at night sometime, to be able to photograph the interior (also trippy and fun) without pesky people all over the place. Anyone have thoughts on who to talk to about that?

Seattle Library Exterior Geometry
Exterior Geometry of the Seattle Library
Alright, this is the last set (I’m calling it a set despite being a single image because it’s a composite, if that makes any sense). I decided to try a different angle, and really ended up enjoying how this came out. It’s notable that you actually can see into the windows of the building across the street better than you could that night (THAT would be a benefit of the hdr merging), and the mishmash of geometry between the grid of the library and the building across the street I just found really pretty appealing. I like how you get a mesh feeling from the reflection of the library in the other building.

Overall, it was a really fun evening, and it felt great to finally get to experiment with something new. I wouldn’t exactly call any of these images exceptional, but I think they came out decently enough. I’m looking forward to heading out in the evenings some more, though given that I start work again next week, I imagine I will be somewhat curbed in my late night escapades (so unfortunate, this “needing money” thing). Days like this that I wish this work was salable, and for good enough money to do it for a living. Going around and taking late night photos of the urban landscape sounds like a pretty awesome career to me!

Night Photography

Setting Your Night Photography Goals: I found this blog through my father, and have been enjoying the photography and writing he posts. While he’s primarily focused on the topic of night photography (as fits the topic of the blog, and a subject near my own heart), what he talks about with keeping yourself motivated and on track by setting yourself good, clear, reasonable goals is really worthwhile no matter what sort of creative work you’re endeavoring to do.

Essay: Digital Photography: A Different Media

This will hardly be an essay that most people at this point and time will agree with. Nevertheless, it is how I feel, based on what I’ve seen and done over the past few months. There is an underlying animosity towards digital media and computers in a great deal of the traditional artistic community (photographers included), much in a similar fashion as there was when photography was introduced. This is further exacerbated by the unwillingness of the photographic community to accept digital photography in the same fashion that it did with film. They consider it to be “modified” from the original print, meddled with and thus relegated in general to digital awards. My hypothesis is that perhaps they are not entirely incorrect. Digital photography in many ways is a different medium altogether from film.

Digital Photography is a multistep process. Like film, it involves a camera. Like film, it involves exposing a sensor (film being the sensor in film’s case). They both record an image. But really, they start to diverge at the point of recording the image. In one case, it involves an emulsion, light sensitive chemicals recording the image displayed. In the other case, however, it records it as data, collecting the color information for a particular point. While the image may look the same in the end, the process itself is the beginning of divergence. For instance, because of the difference in recording method, it is possible to counteract the reciprocity factor of film to do multiple or extended exposures on the same piece of film, to great effect. With digital media, that just isn’t possible: once a sensor is saturated with data, all that is added from an extended exposure is noise. It is VERY difficult to get an extended exposure digital image that is not noisy to the point of making the image unusable. Because of this, you simply cannot do multiple exposures in the same shot with a digital camera. At least yet — I’m sure a method at some point will be discovered.

We persist in treating digital photography as the same as traditional photography, because of the similarity in output. But technically, there is a great deal that can be done with digital photography that is unique to the medium, that doesn’t get touched upon, because of this mindset. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that there is a difference between a cyanoprint and a photograph, and likewise, there is a difference (albeit more subtle) between a digital image and a photograph. There is data within a digital print that could be used to great effect, if the appropriate tools were created. Instead, though, we restrict ourselves to trying to get it to look as much like a traditional photograph as possible. What about applying ourselves to finding ways of getting the images to look like various painterly techniques? The information is there to do so, we simply have to elect to do it.

I suppose what I am trying to say, is that I would like to see digital media not put in the corner in the art community. If people would stop being so arrogant and close-minded about it, they would see that it has as much validity as an artistic medium as any other. It is what is DONE with the medium that matters, not the medium itself.

Annotation: The Mind’s Eye

As much as he gets talked about, and as much as I love his photography, I must say I’m not too impressed with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s writing. The Mind’s Eye is a collection of writing that Henri has done over his career about photographers and photography. Unfortunately, Henri is french and as such thinks in French. Different languages foster different modes of thought and different styles of communication. Personally, I found his writing style very quotable in small vignettes, but lacking greater substance when taken as a whole. This is further exacerbated by the relative shortness of each piece, the average length being 3-5 pages. Since it’s so many short pieces, it isn’t really worthwhile, in my eyes, to address each. Instead I’ll address my views on the three major topics: “The Camera as Sketchbook”, “Time and Place”, and “On Photographers and Friends”.

“The Camera as Sketchbook” was the most coherent and pertinent section of the book, in my opinion. It discusses the process of photography, using it to capture those decisive moments about topics you are passionate about. It also has the title essay, “The Mind’s Eye”, which discusses developing your inner senses, learning to be in tune with your surroundings so that you are both aware and prepared for when a key moment comes. These tidbits would be more useful, of course, if he bothered saying more on possible methods to develop one’s abilities, how to capture the decisive moment, how to work your passions into your photography, how to refine the mind’s eye, instead of just saying they are necessary. This was when I first started to become disappointed in this book; when you realize you are halfway through a book and keep on waiting for the author to get past summary and to the rest of the content, it’s probably a sign that it’s not the proper book for you.

“Time and Place”, you would think, would discuss time and place as it pertains to photography. Perhaps a discussion on when and where it is appropriate to photograph, and when one should just set aside the camera and appreciate it as a personal moment, perhaps that would make sense for such a chapter header. Perhaps Cartier-Bresson just had a really bad editor who gave the collections poor titles. Because it was just a collection of his writing on his photographic escapades to various places at pivotal times in history (Mao’s march in China, for instance). This was not really what was described and sold to me as. I felt vaguely betrayed by Aperture (the publisher) for describing the book in one fashion on the cover and in the book leaf, and then having it actually being a significantly different book.

“On Photographers and Friends” was really pretty boring. It had even less continuity than the previous sections, which either segued from one topic to another relatively smoothly, or was done in some semblance of chronological order. This section, however, had none of that. It was just a mishmash of eulogies or statements on various friends Henri has had over the years, like André Breton, and Robert Capa. It’s nice to hear his thoughts on these influential people, but come on. That said, each commentary is extremely brief, and really isn’t very useful in any sort of scholarly sense. To put it into perspective: Henri discussed 15 photographers and friends, which took him 29 pages of large, spacious type in a small book, including pictures and copies of his handwritten letters (where applicable).

I hate to say it, but I really do feel like this was a case of Aperture collecting the random ramblings of an old man, feeding like vultures on the carcass of fame. This sort of obsessive capitalization on the fame of an individual is something that is truly offensive to me. It gluts the market with wasted time and wasted shelf space, and obscures the truly effective and useful books from the inexperienced reader (and how is one to know what books to seek and what books to avoid? You can only make a guess, albeit a somewhat more educated one as you go along). Between this and other books I’ve read published by Aperture, I really am beginning to develop a strong distaste for them — a shame, since they are such a large publisher of photography and I feel like I should do what I can to support such endeavors.

Cartier-Bresson, Henri. The Mind’s Eye. Aperture, 1999.

Annotation: Depth of Field

After reading Critical Focus, a book which I took great delight in and found particularly insightful, I felt conflicted on whether to read another by the same author, A.D. Coleman. On one side, I really enjoyed the author’s insights on photography, art, and the world in general. On the other side, the scope of the topic at hand (photography) really suggested that I should try to not focus on any one author, so that I can gain more perspectives. In the end, I decided that “diversification” could take a long walk off a short pier–damnit, I could TELL Coleman had more to say, and had already earned my respect with his writing. To satisfy my conscience, however, I did not go for his earlier work, Light Readings, which is apparently much more similar in nature to Critical Focus, whereas the book I selected, Depth of Field, is more serious and scholarly in nature.

A collection of some of Coleman’s more scholarly essays (namely longer, more focused, with more citations and lots and LOTS of footnotes), this book was extremely informative and enjoyable to read. It started with an essay on criticism and the function of the critic, entitled “The Destruction Business”. This was interesting to read, and provided some insightful views that certainly I found useful, and would think that would be useful to anyone entering the critical mode of thought. Being “nice” to someone’s work serves no purpose (likewise, attacking the artist is counterproductive as well). If they do not receive VALID CRITICAL THOUGHT, it becomes very difficult to grow and improve as an artist. He also attacks the concept of “constructive criticism” as an oxymoron, since criticism, in its purest definition, means to take apart. This might be a bit myopic, however: by the definitions he lays out in this essay, all critical thought directed at the work (not at the artist) could be considered constructive (much in the same fashion a forest fire can be viewed as constructive, or an earthquake leveling a city… it gives the option to improve and grow from the remains).

The next essay, “On Redaction” was a more in depth examination of a recurring topic for Coleman, namely the process of editing and refining a body of work. This was incredibly useful, and really caused me to pause and think about my own redactive process. I’ve collected those thoughts in a separate piece, so I won’t go into them here beyond saying that I agree with his comment that for a body of work to truly be the ARTIST’S WORK, the artist must have the final word in the editing process. Though not all of them (extenuating circumstances in some cases, such as when the artist makes a conscious decision to release their archives after death), these “post-mortem” collections that keep on popping up are what amounts to grave-robbing. Many of those images were not released to the public because they were either of a personal nature, or because they were not up to the standards held by the photographer. To then turn around and release them after they are dead is highly disrespectful, and devalues their actual intended work.

The next two essays, “Documentary, Photojournalism, and Press Photography Now” and “The Image in Question”, were interesting, but felt vaguely like a rehashing of material I’d read in Critical Focus. The first essay was an attempt at delineating for the reader the differences between three common modes of photography that often get mixed up with each other. It also brings up another term, “Reportage”, a term which was elaborated upon in another book I read by Bill Jay and David Hurn (On Being a Photographer). The next essay went more in depth on the “directorial mode”, a recurring topic for Coleman. The directorial mode is the process of arranging the image before taking the picture, “directing”, if you will, the image. This is strongly related to pictorialism (which is essentially acting directorally, taken to a more extreme degree).

“Mutant Media”, Coleman’s next essay, discussed the topic of photocollage and photomontage, and the differences (and similarities) between the two mediums. This was extremely useful, and helped to validate photomontage as a worthwhile art medium for me personally. The difference between photomontage and photocollage (a point which is constantly blurred and misused) is that photomontage is generally done in the darkroom, and as such usually requires two or more works (or at least access to the negative or a facsimile thereof), whereas a photocollage is generally done to the print after it has been made (and as such generally uses other “finished” materials to create the desired effect).

The next essay, “The Vanishing Borderline” is one that I found particularly pertinent and useful towards my goals for this study. The topic that the essay was discussing was the “democratization of art” generated by the current level of computers, the internet, and technology in general. Coleman also went back and described other “popular breakthroughs” in the realm of photography, such as Eastman Kodak’s early camera, which made it affordable and effective for the average man on the street to take photographs, putting the creative process into the hands of everyone, instead of an elite few “trained artists”. His opinion (which I am inclined to agree with him on) is that the current trend in computers and technology not only expedites the creation process, but also takes another step toward giving the creative process to the everyday person. This is both a good and a bad thing: it means there is more “bad” art out there, because it raises the number of people with the technology but not the mastery to fulfill the desired effect. BUT, it also reduces the amount of elitism possible in the field (a GOOD thing!), and raises awareness of the medium among others outside the “art community”. It encourages a shift in the art community away from “made with the hand” to “made with the mind”. While not devaluing technical mastery, this shift encourages strong visualization and creativity, something personally I find a bit lacking in “traditional art study”. This I felt was really the seminal work of the collection.

After “The Vanishing Borderline”, the later essays simply weren’t quite as… poignant? Pertinent? While well written, and giving some interesting information and coming up with some fascinating commentary, they simply weren’t as relevant to me. An interesting essay on William Mortensen detailed the nearly complete erasure from the history books of this influential pictorialist photographer. He and Ansel Adams had heated debates in an old magazine called Camera Craft. While Mortensen seemed more well written (at least in the excerpts provided), he did not have as many friends where it counted – namely, curatorial and authorial positions at influential places such as the Museum of Modern Art. (It is a little scary to realize that so much of our ideas about photography and its history revolve around the Newhalls, particularly Beaumont, who was both original curator of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art as well as author of the still considered definitive history of photography. Relying on only one individual to define the history of a medium leaves much to be desired, since it is really only the views and opinions of one man.) Ansel HATED Mortenson. He on more than one occasion described Mortenson as the antichrist, and felt that his theatrical pictorialist style was a travesty to the medium. I found the whole debate particularly ironic, since it has resumed recently due to digital photography and programs such as Photoshop making it easier to manipulate images.

Skipping ahead an essay or two, Coleman also wrote about Edward S. Curtis, who achieved some acclaim photographing Native American tribes around the country. It falls back to the discussion of pictorialism versus straight photography, as apparently the Curtis collection has gotten some flack lately about whether or not he made the native americans dress up and pose. This seemed silly to me: of course some things were reenactments and not actual events. Of course he paid his models to wear “native garb”. He was trying to enlighten about a time gone past, and so was doing as best he could. It wasn’t a reportage or photojournalistic effort, it was a documentarian effort, documenting what he could of the past. Given that he was doing this before documentarian practices and philosophies were really created, I think a little leeway should be given here. Sure, some pictures are clearly contrived and thus ineffective. But the body of work as a whole should not be judged on those few.

Returning to the essay I skipped, “Lentil Soup” was an interesting meditation on how we are a lens culture, and how we got there. It provided some valuable insight and historical information, and hit upon a recurring theme for me: spontaneous invention and adoption of a new idea by society as a whole, shifts in paradigm by what I (and Fredrick Law Olmsted, where I first heard the term) call the “genius of civilization”. Where the collective intellect comes up with an idea, where people all over the place “invent” the same thing of their own accord, where that idea is very quickly and nearly universally adopted in order to make peoples’ lives happier and fuller. It is Coleman’s hypothesis that the lens was such an event. While lenses existed for centuries before, it wasn’t until Galileo’s time that they really became accepted and used for varieties of purposes. We are in the midst of a lens culture. It was around Galileo’s time that we shifted in our mindset away from theoretical sciences more towards verifiable sciences (getting hard data to prove the theories). From there, more and more uses of the lens have been found, until it has become a focal point (no pun intended) of our society. Glasses, contacts, telescopes, binoculars, microscopes, magnifying glasses, tv screens, cameras (moving and still), street lamps and headlights, all these things that are so integral in today’s society are all based on the principles of the lens.

The next essay was interesting, though nothing new – a topic that has been discussed around me for years. “Private Lives in Public Places” was discussing the ethics of street photography. Many journalistic photographers feel that if one is in a public space, then they are fair game to be photographed (though most are willing to concede to having model release forms if it is to be used in a publication). Personally, I feel this type of behavior is reprehensible: just because you CAN take a photograph doesn’t mean that you SHOULD take it. It is up to the photographer as to when a photograph is appropriate or not, but it seems like so many have abandoned moral integrity in favor of getting a “strong image”. The example Coleman used in his essay was that of a man who was photographed by a photographer for Time magazine without his knowledge or consent, and was then misrepresented by Time on the front cover of the magazine. This is just plain outrageous, and unfortunately happens quite often. Sometimes, even if the photographer has some ethics about misrepresentation, often they are working for someone who does NOT have those same ethics. Coleman used two examples from his own life of the lack of ethics in street photography. The first example was one of his son. He, his son, and a photographer friend were out horseback riding, and the saddle came loose on his son’s horse. He slipped off and broke his arm rather severely. He was taken to the emergency room to be treated, crying, bruised, and broken. The photographer, when not busy being helpful, took pictures of the whole thing (as he was wont to do). However, he worked for an agency who held rights on his work, so naturally these images ended up in his archives. Months later, Coleman received a call from the agency asking if they could use an image of his son all bruised and battered in an upcoming campaign against child abuse. Coleman of course said no, because it would be misrepresentational, and would paint both he and his son in an incorrect light. It was then that he realized that he was a special case: if he hadn’t known the photographer, it was distinctly possible that they would not have called. The next example was when he and a photographer friend were driving through New York, and came across a bit of traffic congestion. Soon they found why there was congestion: a car had broken down, and the driver had gone for help, leaving a young woman in a wheelchair sitting outside to guard the car. The photographer told Coleman to slow down so he could take a picture of it; instead, Coleman gunned it and got passed the site before his friend could take the shot. Why didn’t he let his friend practice his trade? Because he had no wish to be an accomplice to abusing a situation already bad enough for the subject of the proposed picture. There are some things you DO NOT DO, even if they would make a strong picture. Sometimes, your own humanity is more important than portraying someone else’s on film.

The final essay was really just a bunch of collected notes and thoughts on the stupidity of our current academic-centered art community (“What? You don’t have a master in fine arts? Away with you, I will not buy your art!”), and how it really only serves limited use. Just because you know the difference between a Monet and a Manet doesn’t mean you are capable of creating good art yourself, nor does it prove your ability to think enough outside of the box to decide your own opinions on an artwork. The whole “Academy” encourages elitism and lack of originality. (With proper irony here: Coleman and I seem to agree on this, yet he’s taught art at the university level, and I’m currently IN school for liberal arts, studying art right now.) His commentary on the art community’s current reliance on grants and funds to do their work was also both scathing and spot-on. The National Endowment for the Arts has become what amounts to little more than the dole. Many modern artists are aghast at the thought of doing the art out of their OWN pockets. It makes you wonder how committed they really are.

I’m going to close this with a rather lengthy quote from the last essay of the book. It is a list of items for an agenda towards anyone interested in becoming an artist. I found this book particularly useful, and a delight to read, like so much of Coleman’s other work.

  • If you would be an artist whose work truly matters to any group of people, you must live as one of them, speaking their language, sharing their experience, their air, their food, their water, addressing your mutual concerns. Therefore, the first rule is: Stay put. Grow roots; allow the soil to feed you.
  • Dig in your heels. Do not accede to any system that would shunt you aimlessly, constantly, from one context to another. Such systems are hostile to your survival. Develop versatility; there are alternative means for supporting yourself. Learn to thrive in the cracks.
  • If you live in an art ghetto, you will think like a herd animal; if you live as a hermit, you will make hermetic art. Find some middle ground where there is room to breathe and time to think, where no one knows of any reputation you may have acquired. Try to keep it that way.
  • Make a home for yourself. Heed the rhythms of intimacy. The artist must learn to be at home in his or her own work, to invite others in and make them feel welcome.
  • Know history, especially your particular history, that of yourself and your people, whoever they are. You must be aware of all that has brought you to this moment. Only then can this moment, or any other, be truly yours.
  • You are a worker, a producer of objects, a citizen in the polity. Be aware of your class origins, your class position, your class aspirations. Never allow yourself to believe — as did Ernest Hemingway — that the only difference between the rich and the poor is that “the rich have more money.”
  • Speak — and make art — when you have something to say. Otherwise, teach yourself to shut up. Accept the natural rhythms of your own fallow and fertile cycles. Do not produce work merely to prove or reassure yourself. Artists are artists even when not making art.
  • Put your own work on view in your home and studio, where you must live with and confront it daily. If your images cannot nourish you and sustain your own interest at length, they are unlikely to be of use to anyone else.
  • Hone your craft. There is always a deeper level of communion with your tools, materials, and processes to work toward. You must find ways to make even pain and ugliness engage the senses; otherwise who will be persuaded to look at length — and why else make a picture in the first place?
  • There are many ways to learn your craft. Be neither proud nor ashamed of the sources of your knowledge. But no matter what form your education took — the academy, apprenticeship, self-teaching — you must recognize your student work as such and put it behind you; otherwise you will make student work all of your life. Only then can you begin to build a poetry of your own. This will take years. Be patient with yourself.
  • With perseverance and good fortune, you will find your true subjects — or they will find you. In either case, be prepared to be surprised: one does not choose one’s obsessions.
  • If economic security is your goal, you are in the wrong profession. Frugality is one of the artist’s tools. If you’re lucky, such economic success as comes your way will arrive in increments that enable you to go on working without ever forgetting the experience of hunger. In that way your work may continue to speak to the hungry, who form the largest audience in the world.
  • If recognition — or, even worse, fame — is your goal, you are again in the wrong profession. Modesty is another of the artist’s tools. If you’re lucky, any recognition you gain will be merely commensurate with your achievement, and any fame that afflicts you will pass quickly, leaving your sense of self undamaged, so that you can get on with your work.
  • And, finally: Get on with your work.

(Coleman, 174-175)

Coleman, A. D. Depth of Field. University of New Mexico Press, 1998.

Annotation: Quiet Light

This work was not a book on photography. It was a book OF photography, a distinction I thought I’d make clear before I continued. It had very little writing in it, though the images more than made up for that. John Sexton is one of the few photographers currently out there that makes a living entirely on creative photography–that is to say, he does not work for others, every image he takes is for himself, though he sells prints. I have a great deal of respect for this, above and beyond an appreciation for his style of photography (fine grain black and white, taken at dawn and dusk and other times when there is a particular quality of light. I’ll get to that in a moment). This was a redacted collection of a little over a decade’s worth of work, including some pretty remarkable images that I will discuss later in this piece. What little writing there was had been written by Colin Fletcher and James Alinder, short introductory essays to the book and artist. I really found very little insight beyond biographical information about the author within them, and won’t bother mentioning them again.

Before I get into discussing individual prints, I want to bring up the underlying concept behind the book. It is called Quiet Light for a reason. Sexton believes that there is a certain magic found at key times of day… the hour or two before and after sunrise and sunset. The light at those times is much more gentle and subdued, but that said, also causes things previously unnoticed to jump out. It is a quality of light unlike any other. I’m inclined to agree with him, wholeheartedly no less. It’s something I’ve believed in for much longer than I’ve seen any of Sexton’s work. It’s what I call Lux Ducis: The Lord’s Light. It inspires, energizes, it encourages the sense of wonder, of magic. Personally, living in Vermont as I do, I see that light more often than others in the country (it does happen elsewhere… but in my experience, not as often as here). It’s not just a time of a day, it’s also found in the air right before or right after a thunderstorm. What Sexton does with his photography is he tries to capture the essence of those moments of this beautiful, quiet light. While he does have a few “failures” in that endeavor, in my opinion, his number of successes is considerably higher, to the point of discounting the “weaker” images.

The first plate starts out the book quite well, with a finely done lithograph of a sunset at Panther Beach, out in California. The tonal range is remarkable, and the spartan setting really allows for the objects of his attention to really ring out, a distinction from the dark sand surrounding. A minor distraction, in the distance a man is standing in the froth of the sea, slightly blurred due to the length of exposure. On the other hand, plate 3, an image of a stand of aspen at dawn, is all distraction, for me. There is too much else going on in the image, a mishmash of evergreen and aspens, turning it into a conflagration of light and dark. (This is entirely opinion, of course. I’m sure others enjoy it far more than I do.)

Plate 6, a picture of a bleach-white branch sticking out of the Merced River I consider to be a remarkable image. The tonal range is excellent, and the image itself I find striking: the dark, nearly smooth water of the Merced, with this white branch sticking up out of it, mirrored in the water, like the white-clad arm of the lady of the lake carrying excalibur. It has both heavy symbolism as well as technical excellence, a combination which I find makes a strong image.

Plates 11, 12, 15, and 16 I found interesting and delightful, for varying reasons. These I consider “bread and butter” shots of Sexton’s work: it’s the sort of image that has a high technical quality, and is remarkable in content, but lacks a certain emotional relevance or abstraction found in some others. I point these particular images out because they are EXCELLENT images, just lacking that certain something that makes a particular image memorable or evocative.

Plate 19 was an image of a small tree surrounded by other, larger trees. This concept has good potential, but I’m unimpressed with the image. The foreground is overshadowed by a far too active background, leaving the viewer with the aggravating task of trying to separate out the focus of the image from its surroundings. In short, the arrangement of the image is too busy.

Sexton included two images of the same subject, which I’ll discuss together instead of in order. The two I’m talking about are plate 22 and plate 39, up close images of corn lilies. Perhaps its the abstractionist in me, but I REALLY like these images. Corn lilies have large, curved leaves with straight lines stretching lengthwise along them. As the leaf curves, the lines within the leaf curve as well, overlapping with other leaves to create a sea of abstract patterns, nearly surreal in nature.

There is one image in the collection that I like more than any of the others. Plate 39, “Fern and Log”, is simply fantastic. It is relatively simplistic in arrangement, but has a level of detail and tonality that is extremely rare and valued by me a great deal. It is the frond of a fern, placed in juxtaposition to an opened log, the wood grain at odds with the patterns in the fern. There is a particular glow to it, even though it is a relatively dark composition. The initial simplicity of the image at a first glance makes it accessible, which in turn is rewarded as you began to study the image more closely, to see the subtle details of the print. This, I feel, is a worthwhile image, and would have made the rest of the collection acceptable; thankfully, it did not have to carry the rest of the collection… Quiet Light was certainly worth the time to examine it.

Sexton, John. Quiet Light. Bulfinch Press, 1990.

Annotation: On Being a Photographer

Over the past few months, I’ve read several essays and books that address (in one fashion or another) the question of being a photographer: what does it entail; what is the difference between one who takes photographs, and a photographer; and how does the “why” of photography change when one shifts between those two delineations? The problem lies in that those questions are entirely subjective, a matter of opinion and educated guesswork, nothing more. As such, all it’s really possible to do is take a sampling of as many different takes, and glean what you can from each. Taken in this light, this book was both insightful as well as a bit of a throwback to things I’d already read.

First, a bit of background: Bill Jay has been a photographer, writer, and editor for the past 30 years, involved with several international photography publications, including the now defunct “Album”. David Hurn is one of the “renowned” Magnum photographers, Magnum being an elite group of exceptional photojournalists from around the world–the only way to become a member of Magnum is if all the other Magnum photographers unanimously agree. He spent a great deal of his younger life roaming all over the world for various magazines, including “Life”, among others. He spent some time recording the Turkish revolt in the 50s, followed by some time in Paris as a fashion photographer (quite the dichotomy). He also founded the School of Documentary Photography in Great Britain. The two authors met at a seminar, and have remained friends ever since.

The book itself is interesting to read, as it is in fact essentially a glorified transcription of some twelve hours of recorded conversations on photography that they’ve had. As such, the text is broken into dialogue, as an interview. This was an interesting (and largely effective) method to take with the subject material. By providing actual dialogue, it allows for greater freedom for both authors to feed off each other, neither required to compromise their ideas in favor of the other person, since each opinion and idea is clearly “owned” by one or the other.

The interview process was surprisingly well structured: Jay, who lead the interview, certainly seemed to have a firm idea as to what he wanted to cover, and quite capable of staying on track. There were a few times where I think he cut the conversation short of a potentially valuable and (at the risk of using an oxymoron) topical digression. Hurn had/has a habit of going into long expositions on the minutiae of some obscure aspect of the question at hand, which are truly delightful to read, and quite interesting.

There was much information to be gleaned from this interview: after defining their own uses of terms such as documentary photography, reportage, and photojournalism, they discussed the selection of your subject. This was more reiteration of the same advice given by so many others: photograph what you know. They did, however, expand on that notion: it’s not just what you know, but what you are passionate about. BOTH are necessary if you want your photography to be poignant.

One particularly common myth that they addressed was that of the “single picture:” taking just one picture of a subject and getting it with the first try. To the contrary, professionals will often take a dozen photographs of any given desired shot. Ansel Adams took over a dozen nearly identical images of the scene that became “Moon over Half-Dome”. That is closer to standard practice than the “single image” that so many people think happens.

Since Hurn and Jay had already clarified the fallacy of the “single shot”, the next major topic in the interview was the next logical step: the contact sheets. Hurn had some good ideas in regards to archiving images, ideas which I plan to adapt and implement in a digital form. Contact sheets (“proofs”) have a variety of uses. They serve as a useful first step in the process of redaction, because it allows one to view multiple images at once, making it easier to select only the best. Additionally, contact sheets, when coupled with storing negatives in a similar fashion, allows for easy cataloging and archiving of large bodies of work. That said, they are relatively inexpensive to make and can easily be recreated, giving the artist the freedom to mark them as they wish (grease pens, et cetera, for redactive purposes), without incurring serious expense. Currently, I’m switching over to the image management system in iPhoto. This arranges my images by date automatically, offers the opportunity to add notes on any given image, and also has the option to make “albums” of scalable thumbnails to expedite the redaction process the in same fashion that contact sheets do. Honestly, I wish I’d started out archiving in this fashion… while a bit more work, it would have made earlier projects much easier.

A minor shift in gears (I wouldn’t be surprised if the new topic had been brought up after taking a break or something), they went from discussion of contact sheets to the discussion of the picture essay. While the progression is relatively apparent (you make contact sheets in order to redact your images in order to create your photo essay), the conversation itself made it a bit more out of synch than that. There was a great deal of Hurn (a world-famous photojournalist/essayist) preaching his own personal opinions on the matter, which became a little tiresome. While the discussion of redaction was both enlightening and useful, there is only so much you are willing to listen to “how things should be done” (Hurn refuses to call himself a photojournalist anymore, because the term has been misused, for instance). It was, however, the last linear topic of the interview.

There proceeded to be a short discussion on the “essentials” of photography — of the physical type. Relatively rudimentary stuff, like “use the camera that suits your purposes, not necessarily what others suggest or are using”, “dress appropriately for the occasion–better to be overdressed than underdressed at an event”, and (of course!) “find a damn good pair of shoes”. You could tell that the interview was winding down, which is fine: often some of the best insight is found in the post-official interview, and certainly merits inclusion.

It wasn’t really until the final section of the interview, once things had broken down to a much more casual conversation, that they discussed digital photography. The digital medium came up as they were discussing the “future of photography”, though they still had a relatively low opinion of digital. I’d have to disagree with them on some points: they felt that the immediacy of the feedback acts as a detriment towards good photographic practice. I cannot agree AT ANY LEVEL with that statement. It is still possible and advisable to proof your images once you get home, in the same fashion that you would use contact sheets. I’m inclined to take MORE images of the same subject, because I don’t have the cost of film and development hanging over my head (something I think they miss… Hurn commented at one point that he buys film by the case… 100 rolls at a time). I’m empowered to explore different angles and views, encouraging a stronger image, not a weaker one. Another point I disagree with them on is the devaluing of the image, because it can “so easily be altered”. This is an extremely limited view of the issue. Photographs have been manipulated for as long as the medium has been around. Retouching is a common practice at portrait studios. Blatant, outright alteration was at one point common practice (during the pictorialist era, before “straight photography” became the vogue), and is becoming so again. Where do they think Photoshop got the ideas for its tools?

I am willing to forgive them the sour taste left me from that last section of the interview, as the rest of the book was quite delightful and informative. There WAS another section to the book, a listing of various photographic myths plus a paragraph or two debunking each, however I don’t feel it merits commentary, as it really was just a compacted, summarized form of topics addressed in the interview. Overall, I’d say this book proved to be quite useful (if hard to get: you can only order it online from the publisher, it can’t be found in any bookstore). I’ve still got questions, but at least now I have a bit more data to answer them for myself with.

Hurn, David; Jay, Bill. On Being a Photographer. Lenswork Publishing, 2001.