Standing on your desk

Work with me on this one.

Right now, after you have read this paragraph, I want you to stand on your desk. Not on the chair, not on the floor beside your desk, but on top of the desk itself. While you are up there, take a good look around. Look especially at the surface layout of your workspace, the computer, chair, trashcan, phone, projects, papers, “in” box, whatever. Then review the layout of your office (or whatever your space or “day home” is comprised of), the position of your desk, chairs, other furniture and their relationship to the rest of the visible workspace near you, the door, a window. Do it now and take your time. Yes, you will feel silly, but it will be worth it.

(I’m humming theme music while you’re up there.)

What did you see? Just a bunch of papers and office equipment? (If so, read on and then try the experiment again.) Or did you gain a high-level perspective on your work life? I do this about once a year and find that there are always improvements I can make to my work environment – piles that should not be there (either at all or could be moved out of the way/closer to me), a better layout to my desk which would be more comfortable – the phone here instead of there, the monitor in a different location which improves visibility and maybe increases the work surface of my desk. A layout that facilitates ingress/egress to my desk, improves the view from my chair, invites guests into my space. It even provides a new view of my work by itself – just exactly what it is I am working on at that moment.

We all need a new or different perspective from time to time to help us see things in literally a new light. Andre Kertesz, as I’ve mentioned before, regularly captured unique perspectives in his photographs. Views from a second story window of the street below and the patterns created by people and objects. A camera angle from underneath a structure looking up into it changed the structure from its functional role to one of beauty. He continually challenged the normal perspective when approaching his work.

Try this experiment and see if you gain a different perspective on your work or life.  Is there something in your life – personally or professionally that needs to be looked at from an entirely different viewpoint? How did standing on your desk alter your view, in a practical and theoretical sense?

Andre Kertesz

I’ve been a huge fan (doesn’t sound very sophisticated, but it’s genuine) of Andre Kertesz since I first saw a book of his images when I was about 20. His work has been a significant influence on mine; in particular that he taught me to look up and to look down – at least more than I used to.

I recently picked up a copy of The Polaroids, a collection of images he made with his SX-70 in the waning years of his life. The images are pure Kertesz, albeit in color. A lot of sadness in them as well as they were shot after the death of his wife.

Beyond the photos, though, is the introduction that gives a short history of the artist and how his career progressed throughout his life.  Not sure how I’ve missed it all of these years, but the book recounts that his career – the world-recognized creative part anyway – took a nearly 25-year hiatus from 1936 to 1962. For 25 years mid-career he was relatively unknown.

This news has completely floored me.

How could that happen? How could a world-renowned artist have his art misunderstood and fall into relative obscurity for so long? The answers, in part, are in the story: he moved to NYC and his faltering command of English combined with an indifferent marketplace created the trough. I’ve always assumed that he was producing, exhibiting and appreciated from the time he was first recognized until today, many years after his death, but I’m wrong on the exhibiting and appreciated parts.

Aside from the surprise, this is so inspirational to me. Through those many, many years where he was working as a staff photographer for Conde Nast’s House and Garden magazine he still was crafting his real art. Shooting around his adopted city of New York he kept creating. Frustrated, I’m sure, but he persevered. Finally, in 1964, at the age of 75 he got his due with a one-man show at MOMA and spent his remaining years at the forefront of the craft.

There are several messages in this story for me but one is simple and clear: never stop creating; feed your creative fire at all times.

Tools

I’m often asked what equipment I use. To twist the old male adage: it’s not the brand of the equipment that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts. Now clearly, if you want to capture high-speed sports action or microscopic images you need equipment capable of delivering those images. But for most situations it’s really not the quality of the equipment that matters, but rather it’s what you see that matters.

 

 

I remember my mentor, Howard Stephens, retelling a story where he went to a Nikon workshop. The workshop was designed to help one further develop his or her eye using discussions and examples. All of the class showed up with a pad and pen except for one individual who showed up with two Halliburton cases full of brand new Nikon equipment – bodies, lenses, filters, the works. This fellow had all the gear but no ideas and was looking for someone to tell him what to take pictures of. It just doesn’t work that way.

 

 

For my part, I most always have a camera with me as the right time for a photo is that precise moment – the decisive moment as Cartier-Bresson is credited with coining – and later simply won’t do; if no camera, then no image. As a result, many of my images are captured by a basic Nikon point-and-shoot simply because this camera fits in my pocket and consequently is with me a lot of the time. And it produces some great images – not because it’s a great camera (it’s adequate) but because there was an image that I saw, that I wanted to capture and I had a tool with me that would allow me to capture what I saw at that moment.

 

 

When I am on holiday or go out deliberately to shoot, I generally carry three cameras with me. One is my Nikon digital SLR, one is a Leica point-and-shoot loaded with slide film (to be later transformed into Polaroid emulsion transfers) and the last is the plastic Diana, loaded with 120 black and white film for those certain unique images.

 

 

Nicely, the vast array of digital cameras available today are of surprisingly high quality, so one has access to reasonable equipment that will allow him or her to capture that image. Still, it’s not as important that you have the best equipment money can buy, but rather more important that you see something visually interesting that you want to record.

The allure of various media, Part III

I finally went digital a few years back and color imaging was thrust upon me through the instant gratification window on the back of the camera. And to be honest, I like shooting in color, although I still convert a lot of my digital images to black and white as that’s how I saw them when I took the original image. While I miss playing with film, I’m finding that the digital images are overall OK. They at times seem to lack the depth of film, but perhaps that’s just me being nostalgic.

 

Despite being digital, my images are as I found them, beyond the normal adjustments of contrast and brightness – no different from what I would do in a darkroom. Years back I experimented with high contrast or Ortho images in the darkroom. I enjoyed the manipulation although today I’ve resisted the temptation to “Shop” images as digital manipulation has been called. I’m seeing some great stuff out there that doesn’t need altering. Perhaps one day I’ll expand into digital manipulation, but for now I’m enjoying capturing images from the world around me.

 

I have to say, though, that while I’m getting accustomed to finishing my images on a PC, I miss the smell of fixer. I’ve been looking for a candle that smells like fixer to light when I work on images at my worktable. My darkroom has been in storage in the States for the past seven years. I’m curious if and when I’ll ever unpack it…

 

Regardless, my mission is clear with whatever medium I choose to work in. In the words of Andre Kertesz, “You have to learn the limits of the medium, and then learn to work on the edges of those boundaries.”

The allure of various media, Part II

Another technique I use is the Polaroid emulsion transfer. These images begin life as slides. I then copy them to Polaroid film using the handy Day Lab. The Polaroid images are then scalded in hot water which causes the emulsion to separate from the paper backing. Finally, the emulsion is transferred to watercolor paper resulting in the odd-looking textured images you see on my site. Going from slide to Polaroid alters the colors a bit and the water bath process has its effects on the image as well. Still, the final image is intriguing and – to me anyway – needed to be seen in this format.

 

Here again, as with the Diana, the composition has to happen in the camera as there is no cropping – the Day Lab copies the slide to the film as is. Adding to the challenge is restriction that the image is only as large as the Polaroid paper – about 3 ½ by 4 ½ inches or 9 x 11.5 cm. Not all images work in this format.

 

I love to work with this medium although Polaroid has announced that they are no longer going to produce the paper so these images may become a part of history sooner than I anticipated.

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