Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Perils of Photographing for Web Display

The above photo is of my 'work wall', a space where I tack up 14x17 prints of the most recent photos I've made (at least the ones that have made the 'first cut' in the editing process). There's a reason why I cling to making prints and looking at them on the wall, as opposed to just editing on the 30" monitor I use.

I've spent quite a bit of time looking at the archives of photobloggers, and for many, there's a sort of evolutionary convergence where they start out the photoblog making images that I suspect look great as medium sized prints (that is, they're working to the print aesthetic), and then over time their work swings around to what I think of as the 'graphic web style' which takes into account the relatively small image size and the dramtically lower resolution of web display, as well as exploiting the fact that a screen is a light emitter rather than a light reflector.

The latter issue is one I've struggled with as I spend more and more time editing work on-screen as opposed to making prints and shuffling them around on my work wall. It's something of a peril that comes with the digital workflow.

So I've stuck with my habit of making prints, and sticking them to the wall with blu-tack, and taking time to look at the wall frequently. It seems that no matter what you do, in order to get the results to be the best you can in the format you're aiming at, you have to make some effort to actual view the work in that format, so that your photography doesn't evolve into what looks good in your image browsing program on your monitor.

More on Print Size

Gordon McGregor had problems posting comments because he's a blogger beta participant, and emailed me these excellent observations:

I've had a similar, though different problem. I've mostly shot digital and pretty much exclusively for online viewing. I print a bit (but constrained mostly by the letter size of my inkjet). I have a fascination for but a complete lack of ability to compose for large prints. I can't get my head around having subtle elements in a scene be a major part of the image - when large.

I'd written about it earlier this year, here:

So it appears that the problem runs both directions, which is interesting.

Monday, October 30, 2006

In a fog

Ah, yes. Out this morning with the camera, in a valley filled with fog. It was cold, really cold - down near freezing. The fog was the heavy, wet kind - not the light dry morning ground fog but the sort that tastes and smells damp, that wets your fleece jacket and numbs your fingers into stiffness, and turns the sharp pop of the duck hunters' shotguns into a softer, thicker thump.

On the drive down into the valley, I woke from my morning stupor to realize I'd stopped in the middle of the road - the visual part of my brain, already awake, had activated my foot and stopped the car, waiting for the thinking part to recognize the need to get out the camera.
In the valley, it was a continuous flow of photos, without pause. Every time I stopped in a spot, thinking there was one photo there, it turned into a stream of half a dozen.

With only my thin, fall gloves on, it took only an hour and a half before my fingers were too stiff to work the camera easily. Naturally, as you're headed home, everywhere you look there's another photo. I had to stop on the road home; the forest was still full of fog and was just too enticing to resist even with stiff hands.

What I don't understand is why it's so hard to overcome the inertia that keeps me from heading out with the camera when it's always such a pleasant experience.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Nice Stuff at Diane Varner's Photoblog

I'm a fan of photoblogs. I don't have quite the discipline it takes to keep up my own, or at least not in the long run. But I'm impressed by anyone who does, especially if the quality of their work is consistently high.

Diane Varner's is my new favorite. Check out this image. Then just scroll back.

She's just got such a nice style. It's not that I like every photo she posts. But lately, it's been a huge majority.

The Little Observed Effects of Print Size

Most photographers would agree that the sort of camera you use has a strong influence on what photographic opportunities you 'see' and thus a direct effect on what things you photograph.

One thing that haven't seen discussed is the effect that the print size has on what photographs we make. In part, I suspect this is a result of that fact that, until inkjet printing came along, the equipment and techniques for making really large prints were expensive and thus most photographers made smallish prints (e.g. 8"x10" or smaller). But now, wide carriage inkjet printers are priced at a level where many photographers can afford printers that can easily make much larger than what they made when working in a wet darkroom.

Before I started doing my printing digitally on a wide carriage inkjet printer, I had for years made prints in exactly one size - 10"x13" on 11x14 paper. Picking one size meant I only stocked one size of paper, it meant I didn't spend time pondering what size to print an image, and I didn't spend much time fussing with making different size prints of the same image. 11x14 is a nice size; big enough to feel generously large, small enough to be easy to mount, mat, and frame. Making 11x14's in my darkroom was a snap, larger prints were harder.

But when I got an inkjet printer, I quickly realized that it was nearly as easy to make prints large as small, and it was a snap to make different sized prints of one image. So I experimented some, and before long I was routinely making prints ranging in size from about the size I used to all the way up to pretty darn big (30" on the short side is not unusual). If I were to pick one print size now it would be 16x22, quite a bit larger than the 10x13 image size I used on 11x14 paper. At the same time, I started making very small versions of the same images for web display (usually only 600 pixels on the long side, which works out to about 6" long on your monitor).

Rather to my surprise, I found that although many of my older images (made when everything was printed 10"x13") were easily downsized for web display, it was darn hard to get good looking web versions of some of my newer work. The reason, it turns out, is that in the newer work, where I knew that I'd be making a large print, I let the photo depend on some small feature, easily apprehended by the viewer in the large print, but nearly impossible to see in the small web version.

For example, the image at the top of this post, which seems fairly boring when sized for web display. The part that makes this photo work when printed large, though, is hard to see in the web version - it's that little cat, perched on the stairs. On the web, it's a dark little splotch, barely recognizable as a cat and easily overlooked In a 20x30" print, it's most definitely a cat, looking at the camera, and it's hard not to notice it.

It's not happening all the time in my newest work, but it's something I'm noticing more and more often. Clearly, my 'vision' is changing as I adjust to making images that exploit print size in a way I couldn't before.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Process and Artifact

In the comments on this thread, I said that as a photographer, I was concerned with process and unconcerned with the resulting artifacts. Arthur responded, saying

As for process and artifact, I'm not sure that you are doing enough to
de-emphasize the latter. Why do you archive work on your blog? Isn't the process of photography generally aimed at creating an artifact worth perserving?

First, I'd point out that being unconcerned with the resulting artifacts doesn't imply that I should de-emphasize them. Taking steps to de-emphasize them is being concerned, too.

I archive work here on my blog because otherwise it would vanish, and the links people make to it would vanish. Arthur also asked why, if I'm unconcerned with the artifact, I have my work on the web at all. It's a good question. My work is on the web so that people can see it, of course. That helps me handle situations like people who ask "So, you're a photographer. Can I see some of your work?", even when the person asking the question lives in a distant place. It helps me sell my work, too.

Does that make me concerned with the artifact? No, it means I'm willing to invest a modicum of time in leveraging the result of the effort I've made. Selling prints gives me money to invest in the materials and equipment I need/want to make new work. It means that although I'm not immune to the charms of sharing my work with other people, getting positive reviews and getting sales aren't the big rewards, they're minor rewards.

That's different from making the artifact the goal of the process. I don't work at photography because the result is prints I can show in a gallery, or sell, or give away, or display on the web. I work at photography because the process of making photographs is rewarding in a host of ways.

The next question Arthur asks is the biggie: Isn't the process of photography generally aimed at creating an artifact worth perserving?

I'd answer both "yes", and "no". There are plenty of photographers for whom the final image is the only goal. Photography, as they practice it, is all about the artifact, and the process they follow to get the photograph is strictly a secondary consideration. If the goal of your photography is the print, I'd guess concerns about how your work compares to the work of others are a big issue. Likewise critical aclaim, positive reviews, high print prices, and lots of print sales; those would be big issues for artifact focussed photographers.

But for me, the process of photography is not aimed at creating an artifact worth preserving. That's the 'commodity art world' view that I dislike so much - the idea that the goal of the art-making process is to crank out a stream of artifacts that the 'art world' can consume by analyzing it, critiquing it, buying it, selling it, coveting it, hating it, categorizing it, arguing about where it falls in the vast panorama of art history.

For me, the goal of the artmaking process is that it affords me an opportunity to engage in the art-making process. From before the moment of exposure until the print is made, it's an interesting, challenging and rewarding process that helps me be more engaged with the world around me.

My observation is that when I focus on the print sales, getting shows, worrying about how my work compares to the work of others, and worrying about what others will think of my work, my enjoyment and satisfaction diminish, and not surprisingly, the quality of my work goes down, too.

In what seems like a paradox, if I want my work to be the best it can be, I have to let go of worrying about how good it is, and focus on the process instead. What things am I enjoying? I try to do those more often. What things am I not enjoying? I try to arrange my photographic life so that I do those things less. What things do I care about, what things am I interested in? I try to make sure that I photograph those things. In general, those practices seem to both make me happier and result in better work.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Is "What is Art" a question worth answering?

Once, I had the great fortune to hear Jean Pierre Rampal play at Mitchell Hall on the University of Delaware campus. It was a hot, humid summer evening, and because the building wasn't air conditioned, all the windows in the recital hall were open, even the ones way up near the very high ceiling. Rampal played beautifully, as you would expect.

Now, the U of D campus was home to quite a few birds; my favorites were the mockingbirds (delightfully, the latin taxonomic name for the mockingbird is Mimus Polyglottos - "many tongued mimic"). During the concert, a mockingbird flew through a window and perched on the sill, listening to Rampal play. When Rampal paused, the mockingbird joyously repeated the last phrase of what Rampal had played. Rampal played the notes again, and added an embellishment. The mockingbird responded, adding its own flourish. For perhaps five minutes the audience sat transfixed while the flautist and the bird exchanged phrase after phrase. Eventually, the bird flew off, there was amazed applause from the audience, and Rampal resumed the concert.

So here's my question: during that exchange, was Rampal creating art? I will admit my prejudice (based on having been there) and say that if that isn't art, then nothing is. Second question: if Rampal was making art, does that mean the mockingbird was, too? It seems that the answer to the question "what is Art?" is not so easy.

Way back when I did software development, I came up with a rule for software behavior - Paul's First Rule. Paul's First Rule states "never ask a question unless you're going to change your behavior based on the answer." It turns out that's not just a good rule for software, it's a pretty good rule for people.

It's fun to look at anecdotes like the one above about Rampal and the mockingbird, and then ponder the meaning of it all. But it's important to remember Paul's first rule, too. Before we invest too much time or energy or thought into the question "What is Art", it's worth taking a moment to consider whether we'd change our 'art-making' behavior if we knew definitively what the answer was. Would I stop making photographs and start painting if it turned out photographs weren't art? Would I work only in B&W if it turned out that B&W was art, but color was not?

No, it turns out I wouldn't. I don't know any photographers who would. And if we're not going to change our behavior based on the answer, maybe it's not such an important question after all.

Negative and Print, Score and Performance

Colin's post got me thinking about this whole score and performance metaphor, and I decided "What the heck. Let's just wade in a give it a try."

The original image, as captured by my camera:

Next, the version I made not long after making the exposure, some time back:

Foreground emphasized, sky slightly de-emphasized, overall tonality adjusted. I was aiming for a stronger feeling of depth to the photo.

And then finally, the version I just created this afternoon:

The second version is the result of starting over from scratch. It looks like this time around, I felt there should be more emphasis on the foreground fog 'glowing', I wanted the fading light in the sky to come off more magenta, and I wanted the clouds a bit more dramatic. That's a pretty minor change in direction and a conscious decision to 'turn up the volume' a bit more than I ordinarily would. All of these changes save the gradient burn on the last version will probably come off as pretty trivial when viewed in a 600 pixel jpg but would be fairly profound in a 15x22 print.

Why Bother?

There's an interesting post (and even more interesting comments) over at Art and Perception. Lately I've been looking at landscape paintings, searching for clues to my puzzlement over what direction I want my landscape photography to take. (actually, truth be told, I've been checking a lot of books out of the library and looking at a lot of reproductions of paintings on the web).

But the comments made by 'Arthur' have had me thinking this past day. His contention is that quilting (and photography) 'have trouble' in the art world' because of biases amongst the 'contemporary art worlders'.

To quote Arthur directly, he writes:
To clarify my view further, let me say that I am in no way trying to discourage what you do. Quite the opposite. I was simply trying to describe (and encourage discussion of) biases that can and do exist. I'm sorry if you find this bothersome or tedious. I find it interesting.

Also, I don't think biases are always just bad. Any coherant view of what art or anything else is or does involves bias.

Also, if you want to convert people who are biased against what you do, it doesn't necessarily work to just run away and tell yourself that you're going to do whatever you're going to.

A lot of fine art people, if they're being honest, will admit to being biased against the idea of art quilts. I admitted to a slight bias myself, not in a spirit of intolerance or opression, but one of openness and knowledge-seeking. I doubt it benifits your cause to view this as irrelevant.

Its not that I don't think your quilts are art. Rather, its that they seem marginal to what I customarily think of as art. Again, I apologize, but I suspect you have similar views about some artforms.

To me, this touches on the issue of why I make art. There are times when I go to a gallery, view a show, and look at the work (scoods better than mine) and think "Why do I bother? I'm never going to be this good." There are times when I view a show, and I think the work shown is crap, and I think "Why do I bother? If work like this gets acclaim, it's all about promotion and not about artistic merit. Forget working so hard on the photography, and just work on promotion!"

This all brings me back to the 'secondhand art' phenomenon that I wrote about long ago in Art is a Verb. I think it's a mistake to make art primarily to satisfy an audience rather than satisfy yourself. The important part of the art process is the engagement of the artist in the process, not the artifacts that get spun off and then judged by 'contemporary art worlders'.

Having realized this, I started to feel better. I make art because, well, it makes me feel good to do it. I like being out with the camera, feeling the sun or the rain or the fog on my face. I like the flow experience I have when I'm photographing. I like the process of struggling as I try to eff the ineffable and capture some of my feelings toward the landscape when I'm making a print.

What I'm completely indifferent to is how my work is judged by art critics like Arthur. And, because I'm not in it for fame, or huge financial success, or a place in the art history books, Arthur and his art critic colleagues have very limited leverage to affect my life and my art. Arthur seems to believe that I ought to care whether art critics view photography as art, or my work as art - and it turns out that their opinions on this (or any other) issue just don't carry any weight at all in the evaluation of why I engage in the artistic process. Indeed, I might ask why Arthur and his cronies bother with art criticism at all when it's clear to me that the vast majority of artists (and here I number the vast slews of creative folk I mention in Art is a Verb, the doctors that paint, the mothers that sketch, all without any plan to show their work, ever) simply couldn't care less what the contemporary art worlders think about anything.

I'm a slow learner, and I haven't learned very many lessons in life, but this one I have figured out: Do the work you love. Do the work you need to do. If fame and fortune come, that's nice - but not central to the task. If you do the work to garner fame and fortune, and it works, all you've done is become a famous, wealthy fake. That's not artistic success.

Here's my view of artistic success: When I'm really old, and my body stops working, and I'm forced to live in some sterile hell-hole of a 'full-service health care facility', situated in the fetid squalor of some urban ara, I hope one of my kids comes to visit and brings a box of my prints. If I take out the prints, and I leaf through them, and I'm reminded of how the rain sounds different falling on a Doug Fir or a Hemlock, or I remember how it felt to have the stiffening sea breeze drive the cold, damp fog inside my jacket, or remember the smell and taste of the morning ground fog and how it felt when the fog wet my face, or I remember the plastic feel of the frozen path beneath my feet - that would be artistic success.

Monday, October 23, 2006

How Much Paper Is Left?

That's the mundane question that plagues us. Sitting right next to my Epson 9600, I've got half a dozen rolls of paper in various widths and paper types. And the question is, how much paper is left on each roll? Knowing the answer can prevent nasty suprises at the end of a big print.

People who are good on record keeping probably keep track of what they print off each roll, and use this running count to calculate what's left. While I'm obsessive-compulsive in a lot of ways, this sort of record keeping isn't part of my psyche.

Instead, I use a pair of inexpensive General Tools dial calipers and a handy little Excel workbook I put together.

You can download the excel workbook off my website here.

There are three sheets in the workbook. The first thing you want to do is calculate the thickness of the paper on the roll. If you have a number of prints with that paper, count them, stack them up, squish the stack tight, and measure the thickness of the stack and divide by the number of prints to give you the thickness of a single sheet. Record that under the 'known thicknesses' part of sheet number three, titled 'thickness from a full roll'.

If you happen to have a brand new, full roll of paper, you can calculate the thickness of the paper by measuring the core diameter, the starting diameter of the roll, and the length of the roll in feet. The thickness is calculated in mils. The value for Epson Enhanced Matte is in the spreadsheet when you download it.

Once you've calculated the thickness of the paper you care about, you're good to go.

To calculate how much paper is left on a roll, use the 'length from diameter' sheet, enter the relevant paper thickness and core diameter, then measure the diameter of the roll using the calipers, and enter the diameter in the 'diameter' spot. The length of the remaining paper on the roll appears in the 'paper length (feet)' cell.

Likewise, you can calculate the diameter of a roll with a given length of paper on it using the second sheet in the obvious way.

The dial on the calipers I happend to have laying around reads in inches, so the workbook is in inches. Conversion of the workbook to metric is left as a trivial exercise for reader who happen to have metric calipers.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Stick Pictures

The other day, when I was happily engaged in taking a bunch of closeups using my spiffy new RRS CB-18 as a tripod arm, I was trying (unsuccessfully, it turns out) to turn a random clutter of vine maple branches into a compelling photograph, and the phrase 'stick pictures' popped into my mind.

It took me a while to figure out where the phrase came from, but I finally twigged to it this morning (pun intended, sorry). I first heard of stick pictures from Doug Plummer. So I sat down, and searched for 'doug plummer stick pictures', and came up with this link to Doug's Stick Pictures Portfolio.

Wow. I'd heard about Doug's stick pictures from Doug. I'd read about them on his blog. But I know that I'd never seen them, and when I sat down and went through the entire portfolio, I was stunned. I'm in awe. The portfolio is just fabulous. Go, and be amazed at Doug's incredible ability to tease a sort of harmonic order out of apparent chaos.

Interesting point: go look at the photos. Then go back, and flip through, and pay attention to the span of time over which the photos were made. Extra wow.

Buillt-in Profiling

HP recently announced the HP DesignJet 2100/3100 inkjet printers. These printers have a built in photospectrometer; the idea is that you can stick an arbitrary paper into the printer, and the printer will automatically print the test pattern, read the printed pattern, and then produce an ICC profile for the paper in that printer.

I'm amazed that this feature hasn't gotten more attention. If it works, this is big news for independent paper manufacturers.

The reason is this: if you have an inkjet printer (like, for instance, my Epson 9600), and you want to try a new paper that you've never used before, you need two things: you need enough paper to make sample prints to evaluate, and you need a decent profile for the paper in your printer. Sadly, most paper manufacturers offer no profiles for their papers, or they offer profiles which are (I'm trying to be generous) worthless for real printing. That leaves you with the option of having a custom profile done for every paper you want to try.

Decent custom profiles are not cheap - the cheapest you can find is probably 50 bucks, and it's pretty easy to spend $100. If you're hoping to evaluate half a dozen papers for a specific project, that means you're out of pocket to the tune of 300-600 bucks, and that's assuming that the profiles you get are good enough. Often, profiles which are fine for color printing are hopelessly inadequate for B&W printing, so you really need to be careful where you get your profiling done. Sure, if I use a RIP like Colorbyte, I can use the profiles from the RIP library, but that just

But if this auto-profiling features of the HP 2100/3100 works, it would mean that all you'd need would be enough paper to profile and do sample prints. You wouldn't have a ten day turnaround, either. Pop the paper in the printer, tell it to profile the paper, then make the test prints. It sounds ideal to me.

The extended service contract on my Epson 9600 runs out next spring. So I'm watching the inkjet printer market pretty closely, now, wondering what I'll replace it with. Rather to my delight, it appears there will be more options than just those by Epson.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

New Photos added to 'sdg'

The gallery sdg on my main website is where I've been putting the first edit of my current main project. Today I put some new photos up.

Some of them were from exposures made this morning. Wow, it felt good to get out with the camera. Really good.

Friday, October 20, 2006


One of the reasons I like photography is because it provides 'flow opportunities' - a chance to engage in an activity where I lose track of time, where I am completely engaged in the task and the world around me.

The term 'flow' comes from the book Flow - the psychology of optimal experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I read the book when it first came out, back in 1990, and I found it interesting, engaging, and full of practical advice for improving my quality of life.

Recently, when I was searching the cluttered, crowded bookshelves for a different book, I came across this one, and was reminded of how much it contributed to my focus on arranging my life so that I engage in things that make me happy, and thus arranging things so that I make progress on things like artmaking.

One of the central ideas that I took away from the book was this: much of the the level of enjoyment you experience when you engage in some activity has to do with the level of challenge it presents. Too little challenge, and it's boring, and you tend to drift away from that activity. Too much challenge, and it becomes frustrating, and you tend to drift away from the activity. So in that sense, an ideal pastime consists of an infinite set of challenges that you can tackle, with each individual challenge something you can master with reasonable effort. It's even better if there are some challenges that are out of your reach to begin with, and as your skills advance, you eventually can tackle those things that seemed impossible before.

New Toys

There's nothing like a new toy to make you want to go out and photograph. My latest new toy just arrived, about four hours before I expected it (the UPS delivery is usually around 4:30 or 5:00, today the van arrived at 12).

Not long ago, I borrowed a Gitzo carbon fiber Explorer tripod - the one with the cunning 'center' column that can be swiveled around and up and down - the center column is really more of an arm than a column. It reminded me of the older Benbo tripods, but without the wonkyness that made me want to hurl the Benbo into a large, deep body of water with great force after I tried to use one. But I didn't much care for the leg locks on the Gitzo, and the tripod legs weren't quite long enough, and the 'head' that clamped the arm had a sort of rachet-like feel that I didn't like. So I returned it to its owner with thanks. But the dream of that arm remained.

So on Wednesday, I broke down and bought a RRS CB-18. It's an 18" long aluminum bar, machined with an Arca-Swiss profile along the length, top and bottom, and with big recesses milled out of the center to make it lighter. My plan is to mount a ball head at one end, stick the other end into the clamp of the RRS BH-55 on my main tripod, and Voila! an arm with a ballhead on the end! Just what I wanted!

After it arrived, it took me three minutes to realize that I had no decent way to fix the ballhead to the bar (it's got 1/4"-20 holes in the end, but of course I have neither a 1/4"-20 stud to go in the hole, nor the adaptor to mount my other ballhead on the stud. So I've improvised, mounting the base of the ballhead on a 5/16-16 stud, which in turn is screwed into spare Arca-Swiss style clamp. It's heavier than I'd like, but it will do until I can find an adaptor sleeve (I have one around here somewhere) and a 1/4"-20 stud (which I will buy at the local hardware store next time I'm in town).

So I'm off to play with the new toy.

Here's the very first result.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Artist's Statements

I hate artist's statements. I hate having to write them for my own work when I hang a show, and I almost always hate reading them when I look at someone else's show.

I hate writing them because writing a decent artist statement is hard. One reason it's hard is that you're often trying to articulate the thoughts behind the work, and that task always brings to mind the Lewis Hine quote "If I could say it in words, I wouldn't need to photograph." Or, as Robert Frost put it when asked to explain one of his poems, "You want me to say it worse?" As if this torture wasn't enough, when I go back and read previous artist's statements I've written, I invariably cry out "Oh! The HORROR!", and want to withdraw from human society in shame for my past transgressions.

I hate reading them because artist's statements fall into several categories, only one of which is an improvement over displaying the work unadorned by any statement.

First, there's the 'meaningless but flowery prose, which seems to bear no relationship to the work". My favorite example of this is
Some have said my pictures possess a beauty, high and light, like the works in silver of the ancient Irish. Within my photographs a simple line can swell to a great size and a looming mass can disappear in movement. Passion always informs my work, exposing darkness rimmed with humor. My art is fierce and exact and my ideas are cool. I force my compositions to resonate, to shudder. My pictures emerge as a moving surface to my eye, like wind on water.

I'm guessing, just guessing, that the person who said that the artist's pictures "possess a beauty, high and light, the the works in silver of the ancient Irish" was probably the artist. When I read that, I laughed aloud, and it still makes me laugh when I read it.

A second category is what I'll call 'a serious attempt to comment on the work or process, cloaked in Academic Bafflegab." My example of this is:

In formal terms, my current work is an exploration of how form is determined by, and conversely determines, space. My work references the figure, though more recently it has explored similar figure/ground relationships utilizing basic geometric shapes, particularly the square or cube within a vertical, rectangular format. I am interested in the tension that exists between a form -- such as a human head or a square -- and the space which it both occupies and is contained by. My long history with drawing has driven my most current work, as I have returned to such traditional materials as graphite and paper to produce works that focus on the process of drawing itself.

A friend of mine translated this into English as "I am interested in how shapes and spaces interact and define each other, their relationships, and the tension between them. I like drawing. I've always drawn. I am drawing again as part of the above work, partly because it works better, and partly because I like it." Written in English, I actually think this is an interesting artist's statement; it comments cogently on the work and the artist's process, and after reading it, you'd examine the work more closely.

And then there's the final kind of artist's statement: the plain, unadorned, honest talk about the process and work. My current favorite is

These images are seen through the camera, they are not manipulated in the darkroom or computer. I am often amazed at the shapes and forms that have appeared in my work. My intention has always been to explore the body, not to alter it. I want to find the camera angle from which the forms can be the most that they can be – whatever that is. If it is a grace to the limbs, then I want the angle from which that grace becomes the absolute most it can be at that moment. And so it leads me on, to explore angles, space, reflections, and light. I strive to make forms make sense visually and trust that the metaphor, the poetry, will follow.

-Connie Imboden

Now, if I could just write like that about my own work.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

View Cameras, DOF, and the 'walk-in' landscape

Colin makes some interesting points in the comments to this thread about using a view camera tilt to get the near foreground and the distant horizon in focus for 'walk in' landscapes.

It's interesting in that Colin, who's been using smaller format cameras (and sometimes tilt capable lenses) is moving away from them at toward a 4x5 view camera at the same time I'm busily making exactly the same transition but in reverse.

I suspect that much depends on the fine details of the landscape you're photographing. On the beach, I was happy with a view camera - often there are few things really sticking straight up out of the foreground plane, so using tilt is a great solution. (see photo above)

But for what I'm working on now, I have real problems and find tilt to be of limited utility. There are objects in the foreground that stick up and mean I'd need great vertical of depth of field right up close - things like gates, and fenceposts, and tall crops. With a 35mm lens and f/16 focused at hyperfocal distance, I get a near focus of about 5 feet, and a far focus of infinity. That's often not good enough, but movements won't help me, so when I get to that point, it's time to get creative. That can be good; giving up the closely held belief that in a landscape photograph, everything must be in sharp focus has been a (ahem) intensely felt learning experience.

This ties in to another idea I've been fiddling with in the back of my mind - a sort of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis for cameras. That is, I think that the sort of camera you have in your hand affects the sort of photographs you 'see' and thus capture. If you have a view camera, you 'see' images that require movements (most often for me, including foreground by using front fall to avoid convergence). Some of these affects can be had (albeit at a cost) in post capture processing (perspective correction in photoshop) but for some reason I just don't 'see' that way when I'm out with the 5d.

And at the same time, for some reason, I don't see shallow depth of field photographs when I'm out with the view camera. I'm sure this is a personal failing; the view camera is nearly ideal for such photos. But I don't use it that way, and the habit runs deep.

Of all the arguments about film, digital, view cameras, and SLRs, I think this is the least explored and perhaps the most compelling argument in favor of the large, bulky, unwieldy view camera. Hopefully, more on this as my thoughts gel a bit.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Muck Boots

Lest anyone conclude that all I do is cerebrate about art, and never worry about the pragmatic issues involved in actually making it, I observe that in the Northern Hemisphere, the weather is now turning wet and icky.

My solution: Muck boots. Really, Muck Boots is the brandname; you can check out their web site at http://www.muckboots.com/index.htm.

I have a pair of 'Tack Classic' muck boots. They're reasonably light weight. They're made out of rubber, with the uppers made from the sort of neoprene foam that is used in wet suits. They don't leak, they're pretty warm, and they're not uncomfortable. The 'Tack Classic' comes up to just below my knee - I've stood in water more than a foot deep to get the viewpoint I wanted, and emerged from the water with my feet dry and warm. They're not even expensive.

Not a new idea

In one of those synchronistic events I love so much, I picked up De Kooning's Bicycle: Artists and Writers in the Hamptons from the pile of 'books to be read', and started reading it whilst eating lunch today. It's the story of all the famous artists like Jackson Pollock and de Kooning who moved to the East End of Long Island and made it such a center for artists.

And the book seems fine, and engaging, and worth reading. The author, Robert Long, can write nicely and persuasively and the readng is enjoyable. Go buy it (click the link above) and read it, or do as I've done and check it out from the library.

But what struck me in the first chapter was the description of how the landscape painter Thomas Moran, after painting his famous grand landscapes like those of the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, came to live in quiet East Hampton, where he engaged in the beautiful landscape close at hand (and the famous wonderful East End light).

According the author, Robert Long, Moran came to understand the counsel of his friend, John Ruskin, who urged him "Please in some degree attend to what I wrote of the necessity of giving up the flare and splash. Force yourself to show leaves and stones - such as God means us all to be shaded by, and to walk on - and be buried under - till you can see the daily beauty of them and make others see it."

So the idea of throwing over the extraordinary landscape to focus on the ordinary landscape that surrounds us is not new. I guess now I will have to further embark on studies of landscape painters - an enterprise which seems likely to be useful.

Discussion thread on 'non-luminous' and 'local' landscapes

It never rains but it pours.

This thread at Luminous Landscape has some interesting thoughts along the lines of my musings on working close to home and making landscape photographs that are not 'idealized' moments.

Monday, October 16, 2006

First Hand Art

I've argued against art being a spectator sport. "No more second-hand art," I've said.

This past weekend, I got a demo of first hand art, at Miller's Community and Arts Center. Saturday evening was the opening for the most recent show there, featuring work by Joe Lee Davidson, Paula Strobel, Mike Ball, and Matthew Waddington.

Lee Grumman wrote in the invite "You don’t have to be a hoity, toity art connoisseur to enjoy this. It’s not about that at all, it’s about supporting and celebrating our folks close to home."

And what do you know? I arrived at the opening, expecting that I'd walk in and find Lee and the four artists standing around. To my surprise and delight, I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Paula and I arrived to find the place mobbed. We had to hunt around for a place to park (this in a town without a stop light.) The opening was such a crowd that my crowdaphobia kicked in and I almost argued for blowing it off and going home. I'm glad I didn't.

And, to my delight, the artists' statements were not the usual psychobabble. My favorite line was "Viewers may note that all of the paintings were done in very similar light. This is because they were all painted about the same time - after work, and before dinner."

Yes, indeed - a series of paintings all done in single spot, after work and before dinner. Take it from me - this is not second-hand art. It's awfully nice to connect with such a nice arts community so close to home.

Receptiveness and Inquisitiveness

It's easier to go to exotic places and make beautiful photos of really impressive mountains than it is to make a beautiful photo of a really boring pepper.

- anon.

Colin Jago's photostream has become my must visit blog as I struggle to come to grips with several intertwined thoughts. In this post Colin hits the nail on the head when he writes "Seeing, it would seem, needs not just time. It doesn't automatically start whenever we stop rushing. Seeing is an activity that requires receptiveness and inquisitiveness too."

I'm thinking:
1. The photographs I most want to make are not the impressive grand landscapes in really impressive places, but the quotidian views of the landscape I happen to live in. I want to show (with beauty) how it looks in the rain. I want to show (with beauty) how it looks when it's under the dull, leaden winter sky, and the branchs are all bare, and there are puddles on the street. Not the luminous landscape, but the non-luminous one, as Colin puts it. I want the landscape that I see, warts and all. That means including the power lines, and the roads, and the farm equipment covered with the ubiquitous blue tarps. If including those things presents photographic challenges, then I guess those are the challenges I want to tackle.

2. I'm increasingly of the view that the photographs that I want to make are ones that either lead me to new understanding of how the landscape around me works, or else show my new understanding in meaningful ways. And I'm more and more convinced that I can't do that in places I don't know. Not only am I a farmer in the hunter-gatherer/farmer taxonomy of photographers, but I'm a farmer who for right now wants to stay close to home. Not close to home in the sense Colin uses (90 minutes is close?) but in the 'just outside my door' sense. That means in the forest in which I live, and in the valley below where I live and across which I gaze from my kitchen windows.

3. Doing that involves what Colin calls "receptiveness and inquisitiveness" along with familiarity. The goal (and the challenge) is to show what I look at every day, often not really seeing it. I know that I drive my wife crazy with my constant habit of pointing at things ("Look at that evening light on those trees! Isn't that awesome?") as we go about our daily travels, but I need to not only point at it, but stop the car and get out the camera and make exposures. Doing that takes motivation, and because it's often during a period when I'm not explicitly out photographing, it means learning to stop the car, make an exposure, and then go on about my daily life. It's a level on integration with life that I've not really tried for before.

It's not about going off on a trip to some place, and coming home with thousands of exposures. I want it to be about going about my day to day life and coming home with thousands of exposures of things that I've not only looked at but actually seen for what they really are, and managed to photograph that as well.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Equipment Lust

Back before I bought the EOS-5d, when I was doing essentially all of my landscape photography in large format, I had managed to engineer an escape from equipment lust. 1997, I was feeling the pinch of the Wisner I was using, and I sat down and made a list of what my dream 4x5 kit would look like - camera, lenses, tripod, pack, accessories. And then I went out, and in one horrific binge, bought it all. I proceeded to use that gear constantly for the next ten years, happy and content with what I had, blithely ignoring the introduction of new lenses, new tripods, new tripod heads. When I wanted to do a project that couldn't be done in large format, I bought Leica M6 gear, which I proceeded to be happy with in exactly the same way. For the better part of a decade, essentially ALL of my visits to the camera store were to buy film, or chemicals, or paper.

But now, I've bought the 5d, and all of a sudden, I'm suffering from equipment lust. In particular, I'm suffering very badly from lens lust. My three lenses for the 5d are old (great performers, but old). There's the workhorse 28-70 f/2.8L. There's the other workhorse, the 70-200mm f/2.8L. And there's the narrow application 100mm f/2.8 macro (not even the USM version, this is the old, slow version).

So I'm seeing these Canon TS-E lenses, the 28mm and the 45mm and the 90mm, and there are image stabilized zooms. I've started reading lens reviews. Several times, I've had the 28mm TS-E lens page at B&H up on my screen, with the mouse pointer over the 'add to cart' button.

I can feel it coming. I know that the lenses I've got are fine lenses, that they're not holding me back in any meaningful way. But with lens lust, that's not the real issue.

But when you find yourself searching the WWW looking for comments on the out of focus drawing of a lens, you know you're a goner, especially when you're irritated because you can't find anything you believe.

Maybe if I rent a few lenses for a few days, it will bleed off enough of the pressure that I can last a year or two without buying lenses. But there's always the risk that I'll rent something and then find I can't live without it.


We've hit the big time fog season here in Carnation, WA. In the evening, the fog gathers as the sun sets and the air cools, and by morning the entire valley is filled with fog trapped between the hills to the west and the hills to the east. The morning breeze pushes the fog up the valley and the rising sun burns it off, and then the cycle repeats.

The fog is one of the things that makes the valley so photographically interesting to me. A foggy morning is a visual metaphor for how I feel about our ability to perceive the world around us. Some things we see clearly, some things are obscured. And, if we sit in once place quietly and let our impressions build, one upon the other, we can gradually see, emerging from the fog, first form and then detail.

Life is like that, too. We race at high speed, traveling all over the place, thinking that we're getting 'perspective', and we never see beyond the hood of the car because the fog obscures so much. Slowing down and paying attention will let the detail emerge from the fog.

That's what making art is for - staying in once place and paying enough careful attention that we can perceive the form and detail through the fog.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Please Help Youth In Focus

Wednesday night or early Thursday morning, Youth In Focus, a non-profit organization that works with urban teens using photography as a tool to make positive changes in their lives, was burglarized. Stolen was their digital camera equipment used for the digital portion of their instruction. The cost of the stolen equipment is over $7000.00 and their insurance will only cover a portion of this loss. There is a concern that some of their classes may have to be cancelled ... and it's the kids who will pay the price.

Go to their web site. <http://www.youthinfocus.org/> Read their mission statement. View the galleries. I've been to their shows, and both the photographs and the written statements that go with the photos are astounding. These folks are making a positive difference.

They need digital equipment to replace what was stolen. I imagine they will not turn down offers of cash. If you can help them out, please, please do.

Contact info:

Lori K. Vail
Operations Assistant
Youth in Focus
2100 24th Ave. S., Ste. 310
Seattle, Wa 98144
(206) 407.2121
Tax ID: 91-1821137

Expectation and Discouragement

And it's all such a delicate balance
that this sport of infinity gives;
expectations we have
can lead down the path
where that devil discouragement lives
- the late Tom Dundee, in "Delicate Balance"

Like a lot of photographers, I tend to photograph in 'projects'; because I'm primarily a landscape photographer, the projects are often (but not always) geographically based. For instance, I have an ongoing project which consists entirely of photographs of closed gates. (To answer the obvious first question: no, I don't have a clue why I feel compelled to photograph closed gates. I find them and their relationship to the surrounding landscape endlessly fascinating but have no idea why.)

Now, often, exactly what the project is really about is not entirely clear to me, especially at the beginning. I'll know, in some intuitive way, that this photo belongs with these other photos, and that I want to make more photos that go with that set. But the relationship that makes the photos all belong together is poorly understood, not easily articulated, or both, and in any case seems to evolve over time. Projects can have a life of their own, and sometimes just as you think you've got your thumb on what a project is about, it does an abrupt turn, and you discover you've really been doing something else, instead - something better, but different from what you thought you were doing (or set out to do).

I think that's good, and certainly not unexpected, because I engage in photography primarily as a way of finding things out. Since my understanding evolves as I make more photos, it makes sense that the projects evolve as my understanding changes.

The difficulty is that it's difficult to make progress without feedback from others as the work progresses. Feedback can be a big motivator - if you show someone prints every two weeks, and they keep saying "Wow, this is fantastic stuff, keep it up", it's easier to pick up the camera pack and head out at 6am to photograph.

Sometimes, though, we get feedback just as we're at the point where we feel like the project is humming along nicely even though we can't quite articulate what it's about yet. And I've noticed that often the feedback at that moment seems to involve assumptions about where the work is headed that don't match my (fuzzy) thinking. It seems obvious that when there's a lot of stuff about the project that exists only in my head, and only vaguely at that, that viewers might feel the work should head in a different direction from what I have in mind. But somehow, when I'm laying out the prints, that gets lost, and the feedback just seems crossways to what I'm trying to do.

It often feels like the feedback focuses on things I think are completely unimportant. "Why is this work in color instead of B&W?" someone will ask, just as I feel I'm finally coming to grips with how to handle the compositional problems. When that happens, I get discouraged. I expected that people would be able to look at the photographs and see what I was up to, and until the project gels more, that just won't happen.

So it's a delicate balance between not showing stuff to people until it's firmed up somewhat and thus going along without feedback (and encouragement), or getting some feedback and risking the discouragement that inevitably ensues when people mis-read what I'm trying to get at. After years of being too bashful to show work to anyone no matter how finished it was, and then 8 years of showing work to a small group every two weeks no matter how unfinished it was, I find I'm having to think through exactly when I want to get feedback. It's not a simple thing and I guess it's always something of a balancing act.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Auspicious Dragon and the Non-Luminous Landscape

For some time now, I've been struggling to sort out some thoughts about landscape photography and the way it seeks to capture the landscape at extraordinary moments instead of quotidian ones.

Today I visited photostream, one of the blogs on Auspicious Dragon, and discovered that I'm not alone in trying to sort out those thoughts and issues.

I was especially struck by the words
I'm not arguing that landscape photographs should not be pretty. I'm not even arguing that moving the odd coke can is a bad thing. But I am arguing that photography has a role in showing that the landscape begins right at our feet. That we don't need specialist clothing, ropes and a guide to feel the grass. That there is a landscape of great beauty out there that amateurs can enjoy. I'm also arguing that we need to accept the roads, and the wires. They are really there and pretending that they are not is a part of what makes landscape photographs disconnected from experience.
Go read http://www.auspiciousdragon.net/photostream/2006/07/mass-amateurisation.html, http://www.auspiciousdragon.net/photostream/2006/07/mass-amateurisation.html, and http://www.auspiciousdragon.net/photography/articles/photoarticle028.html.

Large Format, Ritual, and Results

Every once in a while, I'll read something which seems to make a bunch of random thoughts I've been having for quite a while crystallize into a more coherent form. Last week I got such a comment in email from Ed Richards, who wrote

I would also think about whether the ritual of LF is necessary, whether the instant gratification but ultimately limited capabilities of digital are helping undermine your sense of photographic worth. Maybe what you need is a bigger camera.:-)

I think Ed is wrong (I don't think I need a bigger camera), but I do think he's on the right track. That is, I think the size camera you need depends to a large part on whether you've ever USED a bigger camera.

When I returned to photography after a long hiatus, I went out and bought a 35mm SLR. After a bit, I concluded that the 35mm SLR was inadequate for the sort of photography I wanted to do. This conclusion was wrong; it wasn't so much that I needed a different camera as I needed much better technique and a different frame of mind. But I bought a 4x5 view camera, and then a much nicer 4x5 view camera, and I photographed for a long time exclusively in large format. I thought that the important changes were that I was now getting big, sharp, grainless prints with ease, but the hidden win was that as result of switching to a large, slow, ponderous camera, I finally slowed down enough to pay attention to technical matters and practical technique, and as a result of this slowing down, I started paying more attention, and my results improved.

So, despite switching to large format for what in retrospect seems like the wrong reasons, it turned out to be the right decision to move things along (for me, not necessarily for someone else).

The big factor, which Ed alludes to rather directly, is that the ritual of working in large format makes a difference in your mental state as you work. Working quickly with large format takes a fair amount of discipline, which mostly emerges as a fairly set routine to making an exposure - camera setup, compose, focus, meter, close the shutter, set the aperture and shutter speed, cock the shutter, load the film holder and pull the darkslide, release the shutter, etc. As a result of this relatively lengthy ritual, and the physical size of the resulting negative, you end up feeling like after you've made an exposure, you've actually accomplished something of significance. And if that's the case, you're mentally prepped to feel that the results must be important, too. (It turns out this is wrong, but from a mental state point of view, the wrongness doesn't matter much).

When you work with a digital SLR, there's very little ritual, and the results are a digital file on a computer - a result which is intangible compared to a 4x5 negative. So it would be easy to feel like nothing significant was accomplished when you let the shutter go.

And yet, strangely, when I take the 5d out into the field, and make an exposure, I do feel that sense of accomplishment. I think that after working with 4x5, enough of the cues that make me feel like I've done something remain - cues like carefully selecting the camera position before setting up the tripod and camera. So the result is that if I'd never used a large format camera for a long period, it might be the case that I'd need to use one just to get that feeling of significance. But, as it turns out, I have used a large format camera, and I no longer seem to need the big camera to tell me that I'm doing something worthwhile.

So I end up going out with the 5d and making a large number of exposures, and then I come back to the workroom and I download them, and look at them on the big monitor, and I feel that same sense of satisfaction I felt with large format.

But I wonder if that would be the case if I'd never worked with large format at all. Perhaps the big advantage of working in large format is that it makes subtle but important changes in your working method - changes that don't go away just because you stop using a large format camera.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Positive Feedback

This morning, I spent a little time reviewing the editing I've done for my sdg project, and because I was feeling a bit depressed about the whole thing, I decided to take a break and make my lunch a bit early. At the exact moment I plopped the bread and cheese for a grilled cheese sandwich into the pan to cook, the phone rang.

The caller was my wife, calling to tell me that she'd arrived at the Seattle Westin for the Powerful Voices luncheon, gone up the escalator in the lobby, and noticed this set of photographs nicely displayed on the wall. One of them caught her eye, and she recognized it as the photo above. In fact, all six photographs were mine; they were purchased by an art dealer about three years ago, presumably on behalf of the Seattle Westin. (Art dealers are understandably cagey about letting the artists know who the clients are, for fear that the artists will approach the clients directly and cut the dealer out of the loop).

My wife reports that the photos looked great. I assume they've been there for several years, looking great.

Just the bit of good news I needed to pick my spirits up a bit.

Exposure Resistance

"Life is short, the Art is long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult. Fortunately, film is cheap." -Paul Butzi, after Hippocrates

Several years ago, when I was teaching a workshop on the WA coast in a spot which is arguably one of the most fertile spots for photography on the planet, I had a student in the group who just wandered around, not taking photographs of anything. When I tried to encourage her to make exposures, she was very resistant. She told me that she wanted to go home with at least one really great photograph, and she wanted to to keep looking until she found that one really great photo. When she found a good scene, she resisted making an exposure, saying that it really called for a color image, and she'd just loaded her camera with B&W film, or some similar excuse. She had ten rolls of film in her pack, and despite my encouragement to view going home with even a single frame unexposed as a missed opportunity, I think she exposed less than half a roll of 36 exposures the entire weekend.

Rather to my surprise, this isn't an uncommon attitude. The big problem with this parsimony is that making exposures that aren't great gives us photographs to look at; if the photographs are bad, we can try to figure out why and then avoid those mistakes. But even more than that, in my experience the actual making of an exposure seems to prime me for making another. Making one photograph leads me to the next one; if I can get started in a good location, those connections can form a continuous chain that draws me through the scene, photograph after photograph, in a kind of 'flow' that is my favorite photographic experience. Sometimes the flow lasts for just a few minutes, but sometimes it can last for hours.

It can be hard to break down this student resistance to making exposures. No amount of explaining that film is cheap seems to help. Even students working with digital cameras, where exposures really ARE free, often suffer from this malady.

The only thing I've found that seems to help is to have students pick a time and place, then go to the place at that time with the understanding that they can't leave until they have made, say, 300 exposures. They don't have to be good photographs, or even mediocre ones. It actually works best if some of the photos are not very good. The goal behind this exercise is to try to train the student to set aside that internal censor which wakes up and screams "What the heck are you doing? That looks like crap!" just before the student hits the shutter release.

My first point is that our ability to judge if it's crap at the moment of exposure is poor at best. My second point is that often in the act of making that exposure, we come to understand what we need to do to make the photograph we're really looking for, and if we just give up and walk off, we miss that opportunity.

The metric for measuring our success shouldn't be the making the ratio of good photographs to bad photographs as high as possible; it should be getting the largest number of great photographs. If we have to make 100 bad or mediocre photographs to learn how to make the next great photo, then I say "let it rip", and get busy on those 100 bad or mediocre photos asap. The sooner we learn the lessons of those bad photos, the sooner we get to the good ones.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


The same art show gave me another insight - this one about titles. I've always hated giving my photographs titles. If you don't title your prints, it seems as if you just don't find them important enough to be bothered. And, I'll admit, part of my hatred of titles is nothing but laziness.

But John Greene made a really good point when he talked about why he doesn't title his paintings. He said "I don't like to title my paintings. As soon as someone sees the title, for them the painting becomes just that, and nothing else. Without a title, the painting can be lots of things, different to each viewer, and more than one thing at a time for a single viewer. And I like that." (He was more articulate than that. I'm paraphrasing from memory).

So I feel good. Now I can refuse to title my prints, and when someone asks why I refuse, I'll give them this argument. It's not just a good argument, it's an argument I agree with.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Good Mistakes

"He was gifted with the special capability of making many mistakes, mostly in the right direction. I envied him for this and tried in vain to emulate him, but found it quite difficult to make good mistakes."- Goro Shimura, speaking of Yutaka Taniyama

I read the above some years ago, in a book about the proving of Fermat's Theorem. At the time, it seemed mostly to be a statement about how some people advance their thinking in intuitive leaps, and then go back and fill in the gaps with linear reasoning. It wasn't until later that I started thinking of 'good mistakes' in the context of art.

Just this past week, I saw a very interesting show of the work of John Greene, who does all sort of neat stuff but works mostly in encaustic - pigmented wax on a solid surface. At the artist's reception, he gave a glowing account of this process, heating the wax, adding pigment, and applying the hot wax to the painting. At one point he fell silent for a moment, then continued with "It's a process which features lots of mistakes - good mistakes". For me, it was one of those moments where the neon arrows appear, pointing to the speaker, and the letters underneath the arrows read 'Pay Attention!!"

One of the things I miss when working on a photograph digitally is the serendipitous mistakes that were part of the wet darkroom process. On my enlarger, forgetting to flip the 'white light' lever back to 'filtered' was a big source of mistakes for me - I've made a lot of prints darker and harder than I intended as a result.

Often those dark, hard prints can show some pretty interesting stuff. I learned a lot about the space of possible prints by making humbling mistakes in the darkroom and taking the time to look at the results instead of just throwing them out. My fondness for making full size test strips (prints with exposure varying in steps across the print) is based largely on the fact that a test strip is a series of carefully spaced mistakes that let us look at a bunch of mistakes all at once and then extract useful information from them.

It makes me think I'd do well to make similar 'intentional mistakes' (which might also be called 'exploration') when I work on prints digitally.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Film versus Digital

As I watched this video on the Gilde 66-17 MST Super 3d camera, I ran through an interesting sequence of impressions.

The first impression is that this is a pretty amazing camera - it shoots every format from 6x6 thru 6x17, offers tilts, shifts, a ground glass, a rather amazing 120 roll film holder that sings, dances, and mixes dry martinis.

The second impression was that, at least in this 'niche camera' market, film still rules. The flexibility of film and the relatively low technology needed to hold it in place means that it's perfectly possible to make great pictures with nothing more than a cardboard box, a sheet of film, and a bit of tape to hold the film in place and a pin to put a hole in the box. That low tech flexibility means that we also get film cameras that range from this all singing, all dancing wundercamera to custom built 4x5 and 8x10 pancake cameras with helical focus mounts.

And then, just after I had that series of "film is still better for some things' thoughts (not for the first time), I saw the cunning back that lets you take a MF digital back and slide it around to do tiled images in a variety of formats.

The photo world could really do with a simple, easy to manufacture standard for digital backs. It would make entry into niche markets like tiling panoramic cameras a whole heck of a lot easier, and since the markets are small, a low capital investment threshold for entry into the market would mean a lot of small players would produce a lot of very interesting niche cameras like this one.

So I hope the digital back standard thing works out soon. (Manufacturer's web site here)

On Not Stopping

One of my problems is that my photographic projects don't obey Newton's First Law (Objects in motion tend to stay in motion, and objects at rest tend to stay at rest unless an outside force acts upon them). Specifically, a project in motion will come to a complete stop unless I dedicate considerable attention and energy to keeping it moving. For me, all projects are in constant peril - if once my motivation lets up, the project comes to a shrieking halt instantly. It's the cartoon physics of artistic endeavor - the moment you stop pushing just as hard as you can, the irresistible force is transformed into the immovable object.

As a result, over the years I've accumulated a few little tidbits I drag out whenever I sense a project is at risk of grinding to a halt, which happens about every 3 femtoseconds.

The first tidbit is a question - "Have I done 100% of what I know how to do?" This simple question keeps me moving even when the path of the project isn't clear, or when I know what the goal is but don't know how I'm going to reach it. That uncertainty is often the kiss of death for an effort, and often I have to force myself to advance even in the face of what seems like an insurmountable problem. The trick to this is that often by doing that last 1% of what you actually know how to do, you learn what you need to know to solve the problem. Lesson: don't stop working until you've done 100% of what you know how to do.

The second tidbit has to do with failures. Failures are motivation killers for me. Each failure just convinces me that I'm never going to get it right. It's appallingly hard to remember that failure is a natural part of the creative process; that getting things wrong is often how we figure out what getting things right looks. The story goes that Samuel Beckett had a slip of paper tacked to the wall above his work desk. Written on the paper was "Fail. Fail again. Fail better." I think that's on the right tack - the goal is to fail better each time. Progress isn't a matter of getting it right each time. It's a matter of getting it wrong, but getting it less wrong each time.

The last tidbit comes direct from Jack London, who wrote "You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club." I think that's just about right, especially the bit about the club. Some people have excess motivation, and it drips out of their ears more or less non-stop. That's not me; I'm uninspired most of the time. Someone once wisecracked that no one wants to write; everyone wants to have written. That's me - all wanting to have done, but not too keen on getting started on the doing.

And that's the key - getting started. You can cerebrate about what you're going to do, and how glorious it will be. You can theorize about it. You can engage in dialogs, and read books, and prepare your materials only so long. Eventually, you need to start. If you never start, you can't ever finish.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Editing at exposure time

One of the things that constantly fascinates me about photographic equipment is how our photographs are a blend of the photographer's vision and the equipment used. The impact of equipment isn't absolute; you could make macrophotographs of flowers using a Leica M series rangefinder, for instance. But it would be harder, and you'd probably make slower progress. Even if you did it, there's a sort of soft Sapir-Worf effect where the equipment used affects the photos envisioned, so that flower photographs made with a Leica M6 would probably be subtly different from those made with an SLR, or a view camera.

Sometimes the effect is more subtle than the difference between using a rangefinder camera and an SLR, though. With a view camera, the rate at which you make exposures is limited both by the relatively unwieldy nature of the camera and by the fact that you simply can't carry all that much film around with you. Using Readyloads, I routinely carried around 100 sheets of film in the pack, but because I always make duplicate exposures with sheet film, that works out to 50 exposures.

Someone working with a medium format SLR can easily carry enough film for 200 exposures. And the camera is faster, too, so that with a medium format camera, you tend to make actually use the capability and make more exposures. In the end, with MF, the practical limit on how much you shoot is the time it will take to run the film.

With a digital camera, things are even more pronounced. I use 4gb compact flash cards, and with the EOS-5d, that gives me room for about 400 exposures per card. I actually own several cards, so I can go on an extended excursion and make perhaps 1200-1500 exposures before I run out of cards. That's a lot of exposures; my brain gives out before I run out of space. And if the card size is the limiting factor, Samsung just announced a line of CF cards in capacities running up to 64GB. At that size, I'd actually be anxious about having so many exposures committed to a single storage device. (on the other hand, a 64gb USB flash drive would be something I'd really be interested in).

The point here is that as I've started doing most of my photography with the 5d, the fact that I've got storage for 1200 exposures in my pack has removed a significant censor in my process - the tendency to edit work at exposure time, rather than reflectively and at a leisurely pace back at the studio. I make a lot more exposures, including minor variants of a single setup. The effect is the opposite of the experience that Jim Brandenburg must have had when he was making ONE exposures per day.

Before, I'd run through those variation BEFORE setting up the 4x5. When I found one I liked, I'd set up the camera, make an exposure, and then move on to some other thing. But with the 5d, I tend to linger just a fraction longer - did I get it just right? I change framing, I change point of view slightly, trying to work out what drew me to the scene. Sometimes the exposure I end up using is the first one I made, but often it's a later variant. Often, as I go along, my idea of what the photograph is about seems to shift. The chance for that shift didn't occur when I was using the 4x5.

It turns out that this difference in process exerts a subtle, hard to articulate difference in the results. I don't think that's a bad thing; it's probably good for the individual artist to shake things up now and then. But I wonder what the aggregate effect will be as the vast majority of photographers undergo the same shift in process all at the same time.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Photograph Farm

Not long ago, I checked Jim Brandenburg's book "Chased by the Light" out from the library. For those who don't know this book, it's the story of Brandenburg's breathtaking project in which he made exactly one photograph per day for 3 months. Not just one photograph - he made exactly one exposure per day. I've long been fascinated by this project, which for me represents a sort of pinnacle of artistic risk taking.

When I checked the book out from the library, I also checked out the video, which has interviews with Brandenburg, etc. I enjoyed the video very much, especially the footage shot at Brandenburg's home/studio, Ravenswood, which is near Eli, Minnesota.

The thing that struck me the most in the video was Brandenburg referring fondly to Ravenswood and the 1500 acres surrounding his home as his 'photograph farm'. I was so taken by this that I actually ran the tape back and listened to it again.

I just love the idea of having a 'photograph farm' - a place where you raise photographs like crops. Every photography teacher I've spoken too has insisted that it's important to photograph stuff you care about - stuff you are near every day. But until I heard Brandenburg's words, I'd never heard anyone suggest that you could cultivate a relationship with a spot so that it functioned the way a farm or nursery works for growing plants - a continuous, inexhaustible supply of material to be photographed.

Uniqueness and a Sense of Place

One of the comments I've been getting from several different reviewers of my ongoing photography of the Snoqualmie valley is "This photo doesn't belong in this series; it looks like it could be from anywhere, as opposed to just in the Snoqualmie valley."

I'm just not sure what to do with that comment. On the one hand, I can see what they're getting at. On the other hand, just because the work is about what the SV is like, does that mean that it must consist ONLY of photographs that can ONLY be made in the SV?

I don't think so. Part of what makes this place the way it is are aspects that it shares with other places. I don't want to exclude those aspects, just because they are shared with other rural areas.