Putting it on the table, literally

Just got back from NYC – a quick weekend trip for a portfolio review hosted by Powerhouse books. Portfolio reviews are like speed dating for artists; an opportunity to meet a number of key people in the industry in a short amount of time and get their opinions about your work.

The room was full of numbered tables and, depending on the photographer’s interest (gallery representation, magazine/book publishing or assignment work) the artist and the reviewers were paired up accordingly. Each session was 20 minutes in length. 20 minutes for the photographer to lay his or her work on the table, bare their soul, tell their story and get immediate feedback from these professionals. Over the course of the day, each photographer had five such sessions.

This was my first review and despite being published last month in Black+White (UK) and COLOR (US) last November as well as other publications over the past couple of years, I was surprisingly nervous. Maybe it was the very personal nature of the situation. With publications, you usually submit to someone named “Entries@” whereas on Sunday it was face to face, looking the reviewer in the eye and seeing their immediate physical reaction to your work.

Summary of the day: it was a great experience, at times affirming, at others, reflective. I knew going into it I was going to learn something and I did. I heard things that I already knew (“It’s a crowded world out there – lots of photographers in this digital age”) and things that I didn’t (“Your use of captions with the “Logo” graffiti makes them unique works of art, transforming parts of other artists’ works into your own piece”). I also learned that while the portfolio “Shadows” is, well, shadows, that the individual images stand alone and stand alone well; that the thread I’ve created between them makes them a surprising and cohesive body of work but that each of the images has merit on its own. I received reaffirmation that my eye is unique and that I do cool work.

That said, there were no “high-fives”, no contracts signed, no corks popped. There was a lot of encouragement to keep at it, keep pushing forward and keep sending my work “out there”. Beyond being an artist, one has to be a marketer to move their art forward and keep putting their work and soul on the table time and again.

One last thing I learned on Sunday: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (“Sorcerer’s Stone” in the US) was rejected by 12 publishing houses before someone finally agreed to publish it – a clear message that one just has to keep at it.

Playing with the box

We’re always told to “think outside of the box” which is generally a good way to live one’s life. Sometimes though, playing with the box can be just as stimulating, as it was when we were little kids making a fort or spaceship out of any empty box we could get our hands on. Add a few markers and some string and we were transported to another place altogether.

Howard Stephens, my mentor, was someone who played with the box throughout his life. His “box” was black and white photography, but when combined with some available materials transformed already interesting images into completely new works of art. For comparison, he was essentially “shopping” images long before the creators of Photoshop were out of diapers. Of course, his “shopping” was done in the darkroom – the old fashioned way.

One of his favorite techniques was creating high-contrast or “litho” images, where he’d take a well-exposed medium tonal range image and turn it into a high contrast image using ortho film. (The comparable technique today is a simple slider in most digital software…) He’d usually transform it a couple of times, removing it further from it’s broad tonal range before printing the final high-contrast image – frequently on film.

Then the fun would begin.

He’d layer colored paper behind the film or paint with tempera on the back of the image – or both – to get the result he desired. He played with the box, transforming otherwise normal photos into one-of-a-kind works of art using a little of this and that to create the final image. Too cool.

I learned the litho technique from him one fall afternoon. He gave me a list of supplies to buy and told me to call him
when the chemicals were mixed and I was ready. We went to the darkroom where he ensured I understood the steps in the process just to the point that I had a successful result.

Then, in his usual fashion, he walked away, leaving me to play with the box; to find my own way, experiment and create with the materials available. It was a lesson that I’ve carried with me to today using a variety of media to create that final image.

What a guy, what an artist and what a teacher.

P.S. Just a few weeks ago I found my old litho negatives. Can’t wait to play with them again and see what I can come up with all of these years later…

Life, in a photograph

Taking a photograph is a lot like life: the key considerations
we make in creating a photo are the same decisions we make in our lives in
general: 

Composition – It’s
a conscious decision as to what’s in the photo and what’s not; what have we
chosen to have in the image and what have we chosen to exclude.  Which elements in the photo are dominant and which ones are not? Is there
balance in the image? 

Zoom in or zoom out
– While it's part of composing an image, zoom needs separate consideration. Some images demand a closer, intimate look while others need the bigger
picture emphasized; sometimes we need the details while other times we need to
pull back and see more in the image.

Focus – Too sharp
or not sharp enough? Sometimes we need a sharp image – really crisp and clear
and in other situations we need a little less focus – soft focus if you will –
or even let the image be out of focus. 

Exposure – How
much exposure we need depends on the situation. Generally, there’s a desire for
just the right exposure – a good balance of lights and darks with rich middle
tones. Sometimes we need less exposure, with darker tones being dominant,
obscuring some of the details. Other times, overexposure is called for to
emphasize the highlights and clean up the darker tones. 

Contrast – Too
much, too little or just right? We definitely need contrast in our pictures to
keep things interesting. Too much contrast can be impactful (and sometimes
distracting) while too little is boring. 

Color or black and
white
– Neither one is better than the other; they’re just different and most images dictate what's needed. Color
taps many senses and adds variety and impact to an image while black and white
brings gives clarity to an image and brings out the richness in textures. 

Finally, Selection
– Not all pictures are perfect and one never keeps or shows all of their images.
Do you only keep the flattering and pretty ones or do you keep some of the ugly
ones as well that tell a different story? Are they all in focus or are some of
the fuzzy ones important as well? 

Making photos is all about making decisions – there are
always multiple options available when we create an image and our decisions on
the critical elements ultimately determine the final product. Just like life.

 

 

The allure of various media, Part I

I have spent most of my life shooting in black and white. Besides being accessible and affordable when I was starting out, I discovered that black and white forces one to fully appreciate the essentials of composition – relying on lighting and textures to make the image versus leveraging the color inherent in a color photo. Don’t get me wrong – a good color image has to have the elements of composition present, but often color is relied on to make up for composition.

 

 

Up until a few years ago I was still shooting my reliable Pentax Spotmatic F that I bought when I was 15. Despite the fact I had been seeing my camera for a number of years on more than one photo shop’s antique shelf it still worked and met my needs. But, it was time to move ahead and catch up with the times, if for no other reason than to reduce the weight of my load as the Pentax was made in the days of brass and steel, as were the lenses.

 

 

I enjoy experimenting with photography – trying new techniques and methods to generate interesting works of art. Today, I work in three main media – so-called “analog”, or film, Polaroid transfer and digital. I liken it to how other artists choose oils or pastels or pen and ink for certain works of art. Certain images are meant for certain media.

 

 

Yes, I still shoot “analog” black and white images, primarily with my Diana camera. The Diana came out of China in the 1960s and was frequently used as a carnival prize. Every bit of it is plastic including the body and the lens, resulting in light leaks and not-so-clear images. In these days of automatic everything, digital and instantaneous imaging, it’s refreshing to pull the Diana from my bag and shoot with it. The loud snap of the shutter followed by the grinding click as I wind the film to the next image always generates a number of pathetic looks from folks around me. Still, being forced to frame an image (square, no less, as it takes 120 roll film) and shoot with a single shutter speed and effectively a single aperture (it has three but it’s hard to tell much difference between them) is a refreshing challenge. Certain images ask to be shot with this camera and I’m having difficulty in telling you specifically which ones as there’s such a “feel” to it. The images are ones that don’t require a great deal of detail and in fact are better viewed if the detail is less pronounced. The distortion that the lens creates gives images the “edge” they need. The results are always interesting – slightly out of focus, dream-like and grainy – perfect for the feeling I wanted to convey.

 

 

Void of a darkroom (more on that later) I develop the film at home and then scan the negatives into Photoshop for printing.

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