Overcoming inertia

Woke up Saturday to about 6" (15cm) of new snow that
rapidly grew to 12" (30cm). After much debate, I convinced myself that the
weather presented a rare opportunity for photography and I should capitalize
on it.

So, I grabbed my cameras and headed to a specific location –
“Varosliget”, or City Park – in Budapest, a good half-hour across town in good
weather. It was nuts to venture out, but I knew the snow was perfect and guessed
that few would be out and about.

There's a sculpture in the park that's one of my favorites here. It's a statue to "Anonymous" – a hooded figure
slouched in his chair, a hood obscuring his face with pen in hand. (The tongue-in-cheek humor that accompanies this
monument has always made me smile.) I've wanted to shoot this sculpture with
snow on it, thinking the shape of the statue, its setting and the resulting
contrast of dark bronze and snow would be cool.

I've had this image preconceived for several years, yet I
always talk myself out of going when it’s snowing – and about did again this
time – believing that it was dangerous out, lots of accidents, idiots with bald
tires, I was tired, it was cold, whine, whine, lame excuse, etc. But my desire to
shoot it prevailed this time; I knew if I didn't go right then I'd stay
inside, nice and warm, settle in and not leave the house. Worse, I’d miss the prime
opportunity to capture the image I wanted before someone cleared the snow or it
melted or blew away. The clincher was that one doesn’t know if or when it will
snow again and if I didn’t go then, I might have to wait until next
winter and work through the whole go/no go decision yet again as I’ve done so
many times in the past.

As hoped, the streets were pretty empty although the park
was surprisingly full of families, couples and friends taking walks in the
snow. I got to the sculpture and while folks had visited it to touch the pen
(for good luck of course), they had left it alone otherwise. I got the images I
had envisioned – digital as well as film (with my “Diana” camera). The trip was
worth the drive, was worth the venture – the risk – in less than stellar
conditions.

Inertia is a powerful force to overcome yet the whole
experience – as easy as it was ultimately to accomplish and as enjoyable as it
was – really makes me wonder why I debated making this excursion for as long as
I did. All I really needed to do was just go for it.

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Either you let your life
slip away by not doing the things you want to do, or you get up and do them

.
 – Carl Ally

On digital

My leap to digital was actually more of a saunter. I’m
sentimental by nature and switching from film – which had been my close friend
my entire life – to digital felt like betrayal. I loved (and still love despite
many years of not hanging out in a darkroom) the magic of watching an image
materialize beneath the safelight; the truth appearing before my eyes.

Yet the world had gone digital and it was time I became
current. When I made my entry some five years ago, it felt strange. Here were
these images in color, when I had always worked in black and white. The images instantly
appearing on the little screen on the back of the camera felt like I was
cheating as I was seeing them before I had done any work in the darkroom.
Sitting at a computer “working” on the images with a mouse instead of standing
in the dark with tongs was just plain weird.

But I’ve grown to appreciate the benefits of digital. One
key one is when taking photos of people – and I’m not working with models –
nothing opens them up more than seeing their image on that little screen. Once
they see what I’m shooting they become so much more receptive, enhancing our
connection as we work together. It is an absolute game-changer that was
unavailable with film – unless one had the luxury of sharing Polaroid images.

I still have my negatives and it’s amazing to see how many
times I had one – just one – image of
a subject to work with. It was a result of being conservative with my film due
to cost considerations from when I was first learning. Even in later years, I
took only a few images of a subject maximum. There’s a certain beauty in that;
a certain discipline in trying to get the exact image one time. Most of the
time it worked but there were many times that one image didn’t work and I was
left with nothing.

But then I sometimes question my craft with digital – am I less
precise with digital than I was with film? Because there is no cost of shooting
hundreds of images versus a few, I find myself shooting many, many more of a
given subject than I ever would have with film. Does the nearly unlimited space
for images make me a sloppier photographer than I used to be? I actually
believe the answer is no, however the jury is still out as I have too many
images that need attention for me to fully ponder that one for now…

I’m now accustomed to working on images in Photoshop or
Lightroom, making the same adjustments that I would have done in the
darkroom – working the contrast, dodging, burning, cropping. The only thing I’m
missing is a fixer-scented candle to light while I’m sitting at my
computer…

Between two worlds

I moved to shooting digitally a few years ago. That said, I still shoot “analog” or film for a couple of the processes that get me that certain image with that certain feel to it, including Polaroid emulsion transfers. To refresh your memory, emulsion transfers begin their lives as slides which I then copy to Polaroid film which is then transferred to watercolor paper, etc.

Recently Polaroid announced that it would cease production of its film at the end of 2008. (Not to digress too far, but I have to note I find it fascinating that Polaroid, who owned the category of instant photography, completely missed the transition to instant digital photography…) Not surprisingly, but disappointingly, their film is going away. Then just the other day I popped into the photo store where I’ve been buying slide mounts for several years to pick up some more, only to be informed that they no longer carry them due to lack of demand.

I am, as Andy Garcia said to George Clooney in one of the “Ocean’s” films, “an analog player in a digital world.”

It’s not that I don’t enjoy digital photography but rather it’s that some processes, and specifically the emulsion transfer process, involve a significant amount of handwork to render an image “just so”. While a digital photo can be “Photoshopped” to look like an emulsion transfer, it’s just not the same. First, copying the slide to Polaroid is absolute, as in there’s no possibility to crop an image, so all composition has to happen in the camera when the slide is shot. Nice creative constraints to have to work under.

Second, the transfer from slide to Polaroid alters the colors in unpredictable ways – sometimes enhancing them; other times washing them out – due to the nature of Polaroid film. Always interesting to see how the images come out. Finally, transferring the emulsion to watercolor paper is a delicate operation. If I’m too aggressive the gelatin will tear, destroying the image and requiring me to start all over again. As a result, while I may make multiple copies of a given image, they are all different from each other due to the fact they are all individually hand made and how the images lay out on the watercolor paper is necessarily different as they always wrinkle just a little bit differently.

We’ll see what happens. I’ve found slide mounts and can still buy slide film – for how much longer I don’t know. I’ve laid in a supply of Polaroid film that will get me through my most recent work and allow me to make a few very limited editions of some photos (3 max), but after that? I’m hoping someone will pick up the rights to produce the film, but if not, it’ll be time to set this equipment on the shelf next to my collection of other old photo equipment and find a new process to explore and play with.

Sad on the one hand, but exciting on the other.

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.”

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