Saying yes or saying no

 

It’s always a choice we make when made an offer of any kind. Brian Lanker, an outstanding photographer of our generation passed away last week. I never met him, but my mentor, Howard Stephens, offered to introduce me to either Mr. Lanker or his mentor, Rich Clarkson, when I graduated from college. I don’t exactly remember which one he offered – too many years have gone by – but the memory of this offer was jogged to life when I read the news of Mr. Lanker’s passing.

When I left school I felt the need (nay, it was fully expected of me) to be productive; my father and his father before him were businessmen, so I should be also. Not follow in their footsteps exactly, but go out and make my way in the world. (And a reasonable expectation it was, I believe.)

While I was doing some excellent photography in school, I had also been doing some reasonably good writing, been published, etc. Due to this recent “success”, when faced with needing to live on what I earned, I chose the writing path. This path, through many years of training, more school, opportunities and decisions, successes and failures, evolutions and morphing has brought me, ultimately, to where I am today. And it’s been a good journey.

The interesting or strange part is that I did not take Howard up on his offer. All he offered was an introduction; no guarantee of opportunity or employment or even an interview, just a chance that an acquaintance of his might give me the time of day to discuss the business and perhaps my opportunities. For whatever reason, I said no. No to the possibility of a conversation that might lead to an open door or even just move my career forward in some fashion. No to the chance to meet an interesting person and learn something from him. I have no idea why I did this.

While I don’t regret my decision to follow the writing and ultimately marketing direction, (although I am curious about the “what if” had I pursued photography from the beginning), I have learned over the years to say yes more than I say no. No, as I’ve written before is a showstopper. All action ends at “no”. Yes on the other hand moves things forward, for better or worse and from a sample size N=1, I say it’s usually better.

Saying “no” closes the door on an unknown opportunity whereas we never know where “yes” may lead unless we simply say, “Yes.”

 

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…

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.

Ralph Gibson

My mentor, Howard Stephens, introduced me to complete new worlds of photography. He took the basic building blocks my father had established and expanded my view of the craft. I’ll write more specifically about him in another Catalyst, but his teachings came more from conversation than from demonstration. He regularly challenged my thinking and perspective – not by critiquing my work per se but rather over a cup of coffee reflecting on something he had read or seen.

One such conversation focused around a quote by Ralph Gibson. I don’t recall exactly where the quote was taken from (some book) but given when Howard showed it to me, it had to come from the mid-1970s at the latest. For me, it sums up the challenge of photography better than any other I’ve seen:

The question these days is not how to photograph because we have automatic cameras and sophisticated materials and you can become a fairly accomplished photographer technically after a few months of real work. It’s not like painting. So I think the first question is what to photograph. And then the question is, once you know what to photograph, where do you put the camera? If you get these two right you’ve got yourself a strong work. If the what is strong and you put your camera in the right place, it’s very simple.

This is more relevant today than it was 30 years ago, no?

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