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…

10,000 photographs

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” Henri
Cartier-Bresson

I’ve always liked this quote and, while never totaling my collection of negatives, slides, Polaroids and digital images, wonder when I passed my worst photographs. Someday when I’m bored beyond belief, I’ll count them…

Just the other day I picked up Malcom Gladwell’s recent tome “Outliers”, where he discusses the threshold of 10,000 hours of practice for one to be truly proficient, whether it’s for hockey, computer programming or to become a musical virtuoso.

Is it a coincidence that 10,000 is the magical number; that Cartier-Bresson and Gladwell both mentioned this threshold? I suggest not, especially in the heyday of Cartier-Bresson, which consisted of shooting 120 roll film (generally 16 images to a roll). At that count, one needed to shoot 625 rolls to hit 10,000 images – actually not that many rolls when one is shooting professionally on a daily basis. The rhythm of shooting, the routine, the constant learning that came with each roll moved one’s art forward. The key is that with film, every image mattered as every image had to be set up, framed,
focused and then shot – no motor drive or automatic focus back then. Plus, every image had a price associated with it – the cost per frame for the film, the chemicals to develop and the paper and chemicals to print the final image. One did not waste images if at all possible, forcing one to consider every mashing of the shutter release.

In our digital world, one can hit 10,000 images in a couple of days without really trying. What’s the cost? Zero – just the one-time cost for a memory card that can be written over multiple times. No cost to develop, save the one-off for some software. And one needn’t print an image to view it in its final form.

When trying to achieve the 10,000 mark, it’s not enough to hold the trigger down, let the automatic shutter/focus/everything do all the work and reel off tens of images at a time in hope of capturing that one shot. That’s counting on luck, not skill. One must shoot, review and learn from each and every image that’s captured. Like Cartier-Bresson did, only it’s a lot easier today thanks to the helping hand of technology.

The challenge, as always, comes down to seeing – what do you see, what do you capture and why? After 10,000 images I think one knows what to see and why.

When did I pass 10,000 images? I really don’t know, but if those are my worst, bring on the best.

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…

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 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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