8.31.2012

Why arguing about how to perceive photographs is so much more fun than arguing about which gear is best.


This morning I wrote a post about whether or not photographs need context to be relevant. While I seem to have a combative writing style (I thinks it's just emphatic...)  I wasn't trying to be particularly defensive about my photographs, only the defense of my position that they don't need captions/context. In the course of the ensuing commentary I came to grudgingly see both sides of the argument. BUT in truth I really enjoyed the process because it made me think about something I generally have always taken for granted and that is the idea that photographs exist and are consumed as stand alone objects.  And that when working outside the structure of journalism that captions don't add critical weight. Now I am more carefully considering the benefits of captioning and contextual embellishment.

Some readers more or less jumped to my "defense" while others were quite objective and stood solidly in neutral ground. I enjoyed the whole exercise because we were engaged in actually talking about the art of photography instead of the gear or the business.

When you talk about gear you can go at it from two distinct viewpoints. You can talk about how the gear feels in your hands and how you react to the physicality of the design and the mentality of the user interface, or you can put the machine into the arms of other machines and derive some sort of vaguely objective measure aimed at giving you a series of numbers so that you can graph the relative attributes of the camera in question, via their number scores and come to some aggregated understanding of the camera's potential performance.

No matter which path you take you discover two things: 1. That any preference based on emotional acceptance or "feel" is so subjective that a large portion will hate the very parameters you love, and vice versa.  And, 2. That no matter what you measure when you aggregate all the numerical data points some outweigh others in relative merit based on the tasks in front of the camera while other seem altogether useless to one set of users and critical to others.

Fighting and teeth gnashing always seems to ensue, the owners of the numerically triumphant cameras trumpeting their victory over the cameras of the lesser kingdoms, while the legions of "defeated" camera owners talk about the obviously overlooked faults of the victor and the even more obviously overlooked, nearly magical attributes of the maligned cameras.

As an example: For me the Nikon D3200 is a highly usable, high resolution camera at a very affordable (paradigm shifting?) price point. To fans of HDR the camera is poisonously unusable because it lacks the most critical feature: auto bracketing.

When we talk about art though it seems that we're all on more even ground.  We may like or dislike a piece or a style but we can still talk about it in more interesting ways because of the art's wholesale subjective nature. There are no machines that measure the validity of a piece or the paucity of its contribution.  And if we make cogent arguments they can be used to expand understanding instead of contracting understanding and dividing it (demolishing it) between two warring camps.

Now, does anyone want to take a crack at explaining to me the value (beyond the tasteful enhancement of tonal range)  in obvious HDR photography?

I know a lot of photographers who meet for coffee and end up talking about gear.  Wouldn't it be cool if we each brought a work or book of a photographer we liked and made our discussion over coffee about the merit of the work?   More seemly, I think, to have a smackdown over Avedon versus Helmet Newton than Canon versus Nikon...




Does a photograph have to "be about something" to be valid?

This photograph is currently without context or validity. Or even a caption. But I like the way it looks because it speaks to me of quiet isolation and melancholy. In fact, it was a quiet moment in a light hearted shoot. Context is a capricious bitch.

I recently posted an image of an older man, surrounded by other people, at the Vatican in Rome. The photograph is part of a disconnected series of images I took in and around the front of the building on a rainy day. I don't know who the man is or why he was there. I just liked the look and feel of the moment and decided to take the photograph. In retrospect I could supply all kinds of pseudo-psychological rationales for taking and printing that particular shot. But I doubt that any of the reasons that I can think up now would have been in play at the time.

I posted the image in part to thank a reader for some kind comments he made earlier on his own blog.  I didn't think anything more about the photo or the blog entry until I reviewed a comment left by Kenneth Tanaka who called into question the value of posting a photograph cast adrift from any sort of context.  Here's exactly what he asked:

This is an excellent example of a competently-captured photograph that becomes lost without context. Who is this man? Who are the faceless people greeting him? Why is the reported location significant? It's Exhibit A in the thesis that photographs, in fact, do not really tell stories in the absence of language or richer context. Eh?

While I'm fairly sure that Kenneth's question was genuine I was a bit taken aback. I don't mind a serious critique of any image but it seemed as though he was saying that a photograph must have some sort of context in order to be valid or to have a reason for its existence.  In short, that all images must be contextual, informed and substantiated in order to have any relevance whatsoever to the engaged practice of photography.

In my mind one of the traditions of photography, and especially street or documentary photography is about capturing life in the moment and sharing it. We make images of things that ping our subconscious and try to share the jolt or micro jolt of curiosity that caused us to point our lens at a stranger and make the photograph in the first place.

Ken implies, by way of his question and a later follow up comment, that without a overarching context, and perhaps the support of other faces turned toward camera that images like the one in question "do not really tell stories in the absence of language or richer context." His statement seems to imply that images without context have no value or ability to connect with viewers.

I'm still trying to process exactly what Kenneth's rhetorical intentions are and in the process I went to a site he's produced of his own photographs and read his own manifesto/statement of support for his own work.  It goes like this:

"I am most interested in the challenge of discovering and capturing the ephemeral beauty, incongruities, discontinuities, ambiguities, and humor in the everyday world. This, to me, is what the determined, observant and patient camera is uniquely able to do. "

(I added the bold type face for emphasis--Kirk)

And here is a random sample of his work from his site:




Kenneth Tanaka: One Moments

©Kenneth Tanaka

I guess what I am trying to come to grips with is just what is different, contextually, between the image I put in the original post and many of the images that Kenneth has shared.  And, in a larger sense, whether all images without written stories or journalistic captions, and without instantly recognizable celebrities are less valuable and less accessible without some context.

In many ways the history of photography as art is the history of discarded or non-existent context. The shot of your child may have relevance to you but in the ocean of images on the web it's hardly more than a disconnected document of another human.

To focus solely on the back story of the human face within the map of my entire frame dismisses the other elements of the frame which may have equal relevance to the viewer. In fact, much modern art outside of photography is concerned with tone, shape, color and even the surface topology of the art (minimalist painting?).  Why is it that photography must hew to a higher test that the other arts by making every image dependent on and wedded to its context?

What if, subconsciously, I was drawn to  make the image because I liked the out of focus rendering of the man's hat in the left hand side of the frame, or the repeating pattern of the columns.....?

This is the original image from yesterday's post.




8.30.2012

Good, Clean Work.

Lost to the vagaries of the web and a lower res scan from the original neg are the amazing amounts of detail and sharpness in the originals...

I love looking back in the archives and thinking about how we used to work in the days before digital imaging. This is a job for Motorola that dates back to 1996. They had just opened their MOS 13 facility with a large percentage dedicated to clean rooms that were instrumental in fabricating .25 micron geometry microprocessors and microcontrollers. Every industry magazine and our chamber of commerce wanted to be able to take tours into the fab but the company soon realized that having so many people coming through would be a productivity black hole.  Not to mention that keeping out contaminants would be more difficult with clean room newbies.

The marketing team and the engineers in charge of production hired my company to create a photographic tour  of the facility that would show the 12 major steps they take to create chips on a wafer.  We had some challenges.  The first one being that all the images needed to be of high enough quality to be enlarged up to five feet by six and one half feet. The images would be encased in acrylic and hung up in a giant entry hall so people would be able to stick their noses right up to the image. The images needed to be sharp, saturated, grainless and of very high quality. Our next challenge was that we would not be able to bring in any sort of lighting equipment. None. I called a friend at Kodak and we discussed all the parameters and came up with a solution. Because the lighting was very mixed we would shoot on color negative film.  That would allow me and the lab to do lots of fine tuning for color, after the fact.

Since we needed high sharpness and low grain we settled on using Ektar 25 (ISO 25) color negative film. I wanted to shoot 4x5 sheet film but the contamination officer (rightly) wouldn't hear of it because the bellows folds would be incredible dust magnets and the felt traps across the tops of the sheet film holders were also rated as high dust perils.  Seems one small bit of airborne dust could really mess up the process.

We ended up using several Hasselblad bodies with 6x4.5 film backs. The film backs were 220 (we were well equipped in those days...) and held enough film for 32 images in each. The cropped backs helped me visualize the final aspect ratio of the prints while shooting.  We used two bodies because we didn't want to change lenses in the clean room.  Each body had one of my favorite production lenses on it.  One was a 100mm Planar 3.5 (slight telephoto with no geometric distortion) and the other was a new 50mm Distagon f4 FLE (floating lens element) which gave me a nice, but not intrusive, wide angle view.

We loaded a back for each camera and then took out the dark slides and sealed the dark slide slot with approved tape before swabbing down the cameras with an alcohol solution in a semi-clean room. Then we ran everything through the high air pressure entries areas and brought them, along with a metal tripod (also scrubbed) into the clean room.

The Ektar 25 had a very good long exposure characteristic that didn't really show reciprocity until you went over a 1 second exposure. We used the camera on the tripod throughout and always used the mirror lock-up control on the camera to eliminate camera shake.  I shot sparingly because reloading the backs required me to exit the clean room and start the process all over again.

I spent a long day in a bunny suit with rubber gloves and safety goggles on. In the end we produced 12 enormous prints which still hang in the facility (at least they were there last time I visited).  If I were doing the same project today I'd probably use a medium format digital camera with a high quality zoom lens.

I worked with a lab in Dallas called BWC. The did the printing and the acrylic process and they did a great job. Fun to do a job whose results are still in use over a decade later. And fun to remember the role of slow, sharp film and precision mechanical cameras.

8.29.2012

For Mr. Lonien, in Germany.

A gathering at the Vatican.


I like making my quick black and white conversions in SnapSeed.


It's quick and efficient and I can add in some grain as well as some "structure" to my files. I don't have a workflow. I just jump in and look at what I can get using the color filter presets and the three sliders. I love a crisp black and a higher value skin tone. Generally, it takes about a minute to get everything the way I want it. Quicker than opening up Photo Shop and doing it in there. The trade off is that PS has more controls and more fine-tune-ability.

SnapSeed is my favorite "cheap" app. It's playful.

The charming characteristics of color negative films.


I don't want anyone to think that I've abandoned digital photography just because I've been discussing Hasselblad cameras lately. As far as business goes film is just a small side issue. But it's interesting when you come across older work and you evaluate it next to a newer, different working technology. For instance, the image above was shot on color negative film. It is a scan from the negative. I originally shot this image with a medium format camera, a longer lens and Kodak film.

It seems quite different to me from the images I get from my digital cameras. One parameter that's obvious is the much lower color saturation in the skin tones. Another difference is the long roll up from the mid tones to the highlights in the image. But the think that struck me when I blew up the original, high res scan to 100% was the difference in the way film and digital render sharpness. It may just be that the defaults in the programs we use to "develop" raw files are set at much higher levels or it may be that film has so much more information that it doesn't have the same sort of high edge acutance that seems to come from digital sharpening algorithms.

While I'm reasonably sure that I could dial down the edge sharpness of digital and work in PhotoShop to match the look of film I am not convinced that I can change the highlight roll off of a digital camera file to match the almost endless range of highlight tones in negative films. It's an interesting subject.

It was fun to go back into the archives, judge images from color contact sheets and then slide strips of negatives onto a scanner.  With current scanner software there is a wide range of control for fine tuning scans. While it's a slower process working with negative film does give one a different look and feel than other methods.

The Best Book I've Ever Read On An iPad. (Food Photography).


Today I'm reviewing a book that knocked my socks off.  It's a book I stumbled across on Amazon.com while looking around for books about food photography. The book is written and illustrated by an immensely talented food photographer named, Nicole S. Young. This will sound crazy but the book is accessible on a number of levels, from almost rank beginner to, well, me.

Young writes in an engaging manner, is not too technical but not to "not technical."  She writes with an inclusive voice, welcoming both the casual photographer who is interested in making snapshots of his or her restaurant meals look more polished but she provides more than enough high quality information to keep pros thoroughly engaged. And as good as the writing is the ample illustrations are even better. She has a very modern, light and airy approach to food that works very well for a wide range of food subjects.  Everything she discusses is richly illustrated and most of the "beauty shots" are supplemented with good lighting diagrams.

I bought the book because I was impressed with her suggestions about food styling and lighting and wanted to keep the book around as a reference. I have the strange habit of buying books about subjects that I've just photographed.  I recently did a job food job for one of the world's largest hotel chains and I wanted to see how my approach stacked up.  I was impressed by Nicole's approach and I'll be incorporating a lot of her tricks and techniques going forward.

This is the first book on photography and lighting that taught me valuable new tricks in a long time.

But....the thing that compelled me to write this review is how damn good the book looks when I read the Kindle version on my iPad 2. Unlike many books that seem to lose their formatting and cohesion when converted to digital this one just flat out sings on an iPad.  I bought the Kindle version because it was only $9 and I wanted to see if I liked it before I committed to the print version.  Now I'm in a quandary.  I like the way the Kindle version works so well I'd probably just be happy with that but...it's such a good book I really want to see the illustrations in all their glory. Oh, the hell with it, I'll be back in a second...

I'm back.  I just had to hit the "One Click" for the paper back. It's too good a book NOT to own.

If you are at all interested in food photography this one is a must own.

One note: Don't be put off by the first third of the book. There are very beginner sections about Raw versus Jpegs, rudimentary equipment, etc. Just ignore it. The meat of the book is worth subsidizing the front sections for rank amateurs... the good stuff is in the second half.

Full disclosure:  If you buy the book from the links here I'll get a commission from Amazon. You won't pay more. Further disclosure:  I don't know Nicole S. Young, I don't work with her publisher and we have no "quid pro quo" in place.  Final disclosure:  This book is so ragingly good that I'm jealous as both a writer and photographer. 

Here's the link for the print version: 


8.28.2012

Mamiya 6 Adventures in Rome.


Cruising along the streets with my Mamiya 6 in my right hand just snapping away. As I walked up the Spanish Steps this young woman stood up just in front of me and billowed out her scarf. Being usually prefocused around ten feet I lifted the camera to my eye, framed and pressed the shutter. I kept walking up the stairs. I wound on to the next frame. She sat back down.

The Mamiya 6 rangefinder camera is a medium format rangefinder (a true rangefinder, not just a body that's gussied up to look like one...) and it was available with the holy trinity of medium format square lenses: the 50mm f4, the 75mm f3.6 and the 150mm f4.5.  It is one of the ultimate street shooting/documentarian/reportage cameras ever made.  The rangefinder was nice and bright, the camera was like love in your hands and the ultra quiet snick of the in lens leaf shutter was....ultimately discreet.

I took two Mamiya 6 cameras and the three lenses with me on a trip to Rome, along with several hundred rolls of Kodak T-max CN-400 film. The camera was far better a camera than I was a photographer at the time.  So much so that it contrived to change owners during the bloody purge to digital and its sale stands to this day as one of my all time stupid decisions. I didn't know just how good that camera was until I looked into the rearview mirror of time and dug into the folder of juicy, sharp negatives.  The CN-400 was never my favorite film to print but once you throw it in a scanner it's a revelation.  I only wish I had already been scanning my film back then....

There are really only four cameras I regret selling, the Mamiya 6 is one, my original Leica M6 .85 ttl is another, my Linhof TechniKarden (because it signalled the end of big format film for me) and my Hasselblad 201F (because it worked with the 110 f2 Planar lens).  All the other cameras come and go but those were different. Like a girlfriend you broke over with over something silly and have come to realize just what you lost...and it haunts you from time to time.

If you have a Mamiya 6 don't sell it.  You will regret it. If you had handled some of the premier film cameras of their day you might understand the constant search by digital camera buyers today.  You don't miss what you've never had but you sure miss your water when you well runs dry...

Holding tightly to my Hasselblads and shooting till the film runs out..









Just pausing to reflect for a moment.


Someone once told me to be sure and celebrate my victories, triumphs and even little accomplishments. I pop open a bottle of Champagne each time a carton of new books arrives. I get a chocolate croissant the morning after I wrap a nice job. I buy a new pair of goggles every time I hit a big goal in my swimming. I have to think of a new way to celebrate today. The Visual Science Lab blog just hit the 8,000,000th pageview today. How fun. Seems like we're honing in on the million a month club. Not bad for the mad ramblings of a neurotic photographer in a small town.  I think I'll celebrate by inviting over one of my favorite subjects and shooting a few rolls of 120mm Tri-X. Yes. That sounds about right. Thanks for keeping me company.

Kirk









8.27.2012

Documenting tradition with a snapshot taken with the Sony Nex 7.


Family traditions: Every year, at the start of school in the Fall, I take a snapshot of Ben at the front door, heading off to school.  This will be his junior year at high school. He is now on the varsity cross country team and he's a really good student. He shoots (mostly video) with a Sony a57 camera and a small handful of lenses. He uses a Gitzo tripod with an offset center column and a Manfrotto fluid head. He edits in Final Cut ProX.

I took my very amateur snapshot with a Sony Nex 7 and the kit lens.

It's the start of what I hope will be another great year!

Thanks for reading the blog.

Kirk

post note: For all those who find Capcha (word verification) daunting when trying to post. It has been disabled. We'll see how the spam goes but for right now you post with abandon. KT

8.25.2012

With Kodak trying to sell their film division I woke up this morning with the urgent idea that we only have a short time left to work with film cameras in a meaningful way...


This is my primary film shooting camera. It's a late model Hasselblad 501 CM camera body with an A12 film back, a waist level finder and an 80mm f2.8 Zeiss Planar lens. Most people today would find it kludgy, slow and difficult to shoot with. They would also find its rarified diet of medium format film  expensive and off putting. I'm not sure I disagree. But when I look beyond the need to meter, to manually focus and to compose on a screen with a reversed image I come to grips with the understanding that these impediments are actually leverage points for mindful photography.

To commit to using a medium format film camera is to open one's self up to the possible satori that comes from diligently working with actual intention.  I don't mean that I lack intention when I pick up a digital camera and go out to shoot for business but I have come to understand that the tyranny of endless choice with no immediately discernable costs waters down the most important aspect of interesting personal photography: making a strong choice.

You've heard the brutally overused saw which says, "If you give someone a hammer then everything looks like a nail." I have a photographic corollary that says, "If you give a photographer a big empty memory card everything looks like a photographic opportunity." Paying for film and processing, and the tougher physical process of making an image with a medium format film camera re-introduces the need for discernment and positive discrimination. Since you feel the cost of the material and time you are apt to more carefully select both your subject and your optimum moment.

At this point the same linear people who always chime in are warming up their keyboards to tell me that they are able to focus their energies and concentration so well (and effortlessly) that they can leave their homes with a digital camera and a 64 gigabyte memory card and very easily (and I'm sure with rigorous logic and rational control) come back at the end of the day with only one or two shot frames; if that's what they planned for at the outset.  Please don't bother to chime in.  In a very real sense, no matter how the hopelessly pragmatic choose to spin their regimented methodology the rest of us understand that the ability to rationalize choices hardly makes them either universal or understandable to the rest of us.

When I shoot with a digital camera I am routinely driven to shoot 200 frames to make one portrait because I'm convinced that I can play the numbers and wear the subject into submission by a process of inundation. No similar workflow happens when I shoot slow film. I must slow down. I must give more thought to each shot and I must make choices about when to shoot and when to stop and look and explore and engage my subject.

If you've read my blog over the past few years it's no secret that I end up shooting all or most of my commercial jobs with digital cameras but that I have a real affinity for the magical aspect ratio of the square and the wonderful tonality of the raw, square "footage" big film provides. While the number dweebs are captivated by sheer resolution I am captivated by the infinitely smooth tonality that film brings to the table.  We could address it as dynamic range but I prefer to describe the effect as extended tonal range.

When I shoot for myself my first choice is always the Hasselblad. I may miss moments because of the operational slowness of the camera and that's okay.  Like a powerful boxer when the Hasselblad does connect with the right image at the right time it's a total knock out. I hate paying for film and processing as much as the next guy but sometimes you have to in order to get exactly the look you want.  We gave up too much when we gave up on medium format film for our dearest work. If you have a rationalization for why you enjoy digital better you might think of this analogy that a highly successful female photographer once told me when I asked her why she was still carrying around her medium format camera.

She said, "The difference between a big, wonderful film camera and a digital camera is like the difference between one of those all you can eat buffets and really fine dining. In the bargain buffets the people rush to the serving lines and pile their plates high with lots and lots of mediocre food. Then they sit down and stuff themselves. It's hardly a unique experience, not one you'll remember with fondness, and nothing stands out as special. But, in a really fine restaurant with a talented and artistic chef you go for the experience of trying delicacies and masterpieces. You will not fill your plate but you will have a unique experience, the flavors of which will infuse and enrich your life, and memories, for years to come."

She went on to say as she put her camera into a straw basket and got ready to bike home, "I can't always afford the fine dining experience. Sometimes I just need to eat because I'm hungry. So we need both kinds of restaurants. But the times when art meets food are the times when I feel like I've had an experience that will subtly change my life. The rest of the times I'm just placated until I'm hungry again and go off to refill my plate with inconsequential food."

"But what does this have to do with my question?" I asked.

As she peddled off on her bicycle she turned over her shoulder and suggested, "Isn't photography a lot like food?"

Blogs like this (about film and digital) seem  to attract comment wars wherein the old codgers who are zealous converts rush to the defense of digital by trotting out their litany of aches and pains and how digital brought the joy of their photography back. Younger people comment about people in the generations above them who just don't get that digital is a whole different medium and one that no one above their station in age can possibly understand.

I like to think that we deserve to be open to both experiences. The experience of economy and heedless speed as well as the experience of slow, mindful craft.  And if we (the majority of artists) have problems with self imposed boundaries maybe the difference between the digital and the film cameras helps us to change gears in our minds and in our artistic spirits and bring to bear the right  mental point of view that lets us divide our art into categories such as practical and unfettered; quick versus slow, methodical versus flippant, immersed versus surface infatuation and so on.

The realization that Kodak is exiting the film business tells me that we have very few years left in which to shoot and have our films lab processed at a reasonable cost. I, for one, want to take the opportunity to shoot film until it vanishes.  There might always be film as there is still vinyl but the lack of access and the high costs might become to overwhelming to most photographer and we'll have lost another set of tools and aesthetics in our chosen art.

I am curious to know from my readers: Do you still shoot film? Have you ever shot film? If you've been engaged in photography for a while have you switched totally to digital or do you still  have a foot in both camps? If you still shoot film what are your favorite emulsions and how do you see film as different, artistically, from digital?

I've just taken possession of a beautiful, black 501C Hasselblad and a new lens and prism finder. I'll be selling my earlier black 500CM body and back (no lens) in short order. Stay tuned for more information.


8.24.2012

Why Take Photographs? A "Reprint" from early 2011.


 

Belinda.  Sometime in the last thirty years.  Seems like yesterday.

(Originally written in 2004 and modified today)

I was trying to remember all of my initial brushes with photography and piece together when and why the addiction to the process stuck.  Christmas in the late 1960's.  My unstructured memory of my life before high school would lead me to believe that my family was living at the time outside of Ft. Worth, Texas.  Someone in my family got a Polaroid "Big Shot" instant camera and we all took turns using it until the novelty of the fixed focal length and the color quality of the milky, soft, squarish photographs wore off.

My mom and dad were traditional, middle class, single income parents at the time, trying their best to keep everything moving forward while dreading the not too distant cost of paying for three college educations in a row.  The cost of unnecessary novelty films seemed as wasteful as tossing quarters  from a moving car.  We didn't ask for many replacement packs of Polaroid because we were pretty sure that it would come down to a choice between new shoes and film----and our feet were still growing.

I remember stories of my mother going with a Turkish taxi driver to the outskirts of Adana, Turkey to photograph a gypsy tribe with a Kodak Instamatic and color print film---but she rarely pointed this camera at her own family.  My next brush with cameras came when I found my parent's older Argus A4 camera, discarded in the garage.  It used 127 film.  A film size discontinued by Kodak a few years ago.  The camera was made of bakelite(tm) plastic and had a finder you composed with but no focusing aids at all.  Everything was strictly zone focus.  And of course, typical of an inexpensive camera from the 1950's it had no automation or metering whatsoever.  But that's why Kodak had pictograms of exposure recommendations packed with every roll of film they sold....

Knowing now my parent's almost pathological resistance to any and all mechanical devices I am amazed at the Kodachrome slides they took of us with this primitive camera back in the very early 1960's.

At any rate, I retrieved it from a box of junk in the garage in our San Antonio home some time in 1971 and revived it.  At the time I had no allowance and earned just a little bit of money as a lifeguard at the high school pool.  But I bought a roll of black and white film (it was much cheaper to buy and have developed in 1975 than color) and I proceeded to experiment by shooting the only thing that held my interest at the time, my girlfriend, Linda.  

Owing to my non-existent technical knowledge and the deterioration of the lens and the body of the camera, the results of my first foray were less than good and I didn't touch a camera again until years later.  Sometime around 1974 or 1975 when I had been at school for several years I was working at an audio store, part time.  I sold stereo systems (now they are called audio systems).  The owner, manager and the other salespeople were avid photography amateurs.  One day Herb Ganz flipped open a black Halliburton case that cosseted a family of  black Olympus OM-1 camera bodies and lenses, tenderly, in pre-cut cushions of foam.  I was hooked.

Herb helped me select and buy my first of many cameras, the Canon Canonet 17 rangefinder.  A fixed 40mm 1.7 lens on a sleek and hefty camera that took 35mm film.  In the early days that "17" took rolls and rolls of home loader 35mm black and white film.  It was the magic of making my first black and white prints in the Ark co-operative darkroom that led me down the path to my photo-addiction and all that it entails.

It will seem odd to the current generations of up and coming photographers that we were able to accomplish so much so well with mechanical units and no computers or instant preview on backlit screens.  The moment of my first cognizant love of photography camera when I made a photograph of a cute and adventurous girl friend sitting on some concrete stes in one the neighborhoods just south of campus.  She had on her glasses and a cornflower blue Mexican wedding shirt and a baggy pair of short khaki shorts that were quite worn.  She sat with her knees up and her legs slightly apart and her shorts billowed out slightly, revealing her white cotton underwear loosely and barely covering her body.  I shot a photo.  Just one----and I was hooked.

I had reduced her thirsty sexuality and keen sense of playful tease in one inarguably correct image.  It would forever conjure up for me the notion of carefree sex and love in the mid-1970's.  But with time the photo and the memory of the photo is stronger than any later memory of the same woman.  It was at the moment I took the photo that the visual memory imprinted on whichever part of my brain was affected.  NOT upon the revelation of the print.  Not the final art but the initial conception or discovery of the image. The magic moment for me has always been the realization that there was a scene, a tableau, a moment that had reached a sort of distinct ripeness.    I want to freeze "now".  And then savor it (the memory) over time. 

And here's the funny thing.  The photos don't get better or worse.  They are always in my mind just the way they were.  It's almost as though the matrix that constitutes the right scene and the right time is frozen into an unchanging cube of objective reality.  Always my own reality.  And, I find, nothing about that sense of reality is universal.  I find what I find in each image and it's not mirrored in someone else's viewing.  Each person brings his or her own complex reality to the viewing giving the viewer a value commensurate with their own emotional commonalities.

During my years teaching and thru my time in advertising photography existed as a passion, an obsession if you will.  I walked thru the streets of cities all over the world discovering the uniqueness of their citizens' existence and the commonality that binds us.  As long as I operated in that sphere the enchantment was pretty much complete.  And there was a constant and consistent destination for the images I saw, the things I committed to film.  The best of the best would become prints and the prints would get shared in shows, both formal and less so.

What I found and find to be most compelling is the way a portrait can capture that thing that led me to find someone interesting, compelling, attractive, delightful and how much I wanted to preserve just that feeling that is a combination of the subject's quick glance, their turn of the head, their sly smile, their earnest eyes.......

This is the way I originally approached taking pictures when I was always the primary audience.  As I began to go after paying jobs everything started to shift.  

When I photographed primarily for an external audience (an advertising client?)  I felt a loosening of emotional control over the ownership of the image.  In an image not created for my sole enjoyment I feel a distancing from the work as though it squeaked thru without my complete and complicit approval.

I was struck today with the realization that photography has changed for me in almost every conceivable way.  Rather than being a joyous hobby that sucks down every spare dollar, it is a profession that earned me a little over $XX,XXX last month.  Instead of spending days in the darkroom coaxing images onto sensitized photographic paper I spend most days tethered to a computer trying to optimize a mish mash (I was going to reflexively write: "mismatch" ) of pixels into beautiful images.  The overview challenges are the same:  Capture the image and share it on paper.  Or, capture the image and share it on the screen. But everything changes from there.

What sucks about all of this?  There feels like a disconnection between my thought processes and the computer rendering.  Wet photography was more inviting and addictive.  It was a learned skill set that was never exactly reproducible.  Every print really, REALLY was a unique work of art.  Today I spent most of my day processing raw files shot in a UT lab, under existing light, for a technology client.  The unsettling aspect was the ease and the degree to which everything in the frame could be corrected.  The process seemed so mechanical and cold.  Or should I say so binary and cold.  And yet, this is the practice of current photography.

The processes all seem compromised.  We store images on hard drives and Cd's and DVD's and we're not at all sure if we'll be able to read these media in ten years.  The standards, formats and machines will evolove and there is no assurance of backward compatibility.  Now we are learning that the CD's and DVD's may not survive the next ten years so that we can even try to using the next successive generation of readers.  We can make prints with much more control but they may last only ten or fifteen years before the inks start fading away.....eventually to disregard the work on the paper  without a trace.  Like an old Ektachrome slide from the 1950's.

Another grievance is the quickness with which everything happens.  In the old days clients would show us comps and we would bid.  A week later someone would call and tell me I was the successful bidder.  Another week would pass as we rounded up props and talent, locations and film.  Now clients call and ask for bids with only the most ephemeral description of the project.  They want a price immediately and, within the space of a few hours they award the project.  They push to shoot immediately with no thought for pre-production (physical) or a thorough thinking through.  No, everything seems so transient and thin.  Gone are the underpinnings and thoughtful foundations of art.  And whether a photographer admits this or not, they are all in it for the art.  

So how do I make it work again?  How can I be happy doing the work?

I'm thinking these things when I run into John at Chipotle's.  We're both ravenous for burritos.   Ben and Belinda were there too.  We got to talking about how different cultures live and he told a story about a cheese maker in Italy.

The man was 58 years old and all he made was Parmagiano Reggiano cheese.  But he made it better every year. And better than everyone else.  It always won the top awards in all the food shows and the vitally important cheese competition.  Finally, after 20 years the contest officials retired his entry number so that someone else could win.  The point was that as a society we don't value mastering and craftsmanship.  Only instant gratification.  We need to re-value and resell the whole concept of mastery.  Maybe that's what gives meaning to our efforts.  A non-plastic recording of beauty and sensuality.  

But what does this have to do with why I photograph?  Because, in spite of my feelings about the commercial marketplace I still pick up my cameras every day and take pictures that delight me....

(added today)

So, I came across the above in one of my journals and it became the basis for a whole train of thought for me today.   And at the bottom of the process is still the question, "Why take photographs?"  

Looking at all of this some seven years later is interesting.  The cultural switch over to digital imaging is more or less complete.  The retreat from the high production demands of fine print to the less produced but more immediate display on screens is largely in its last phase and the mantra of the last two years (with my voice occasionally included) is that moving images will conquer the still market.  As though it's inevitable and only a matter of time....

And that led me to re-examine my whole premise and my whole interaction and allegiance to all the plastic arts.  And here's what I've found (which in no way is original thinking but in fact is the echo of a pervasive counterstream of philosophy of aesthetics about imaging) :  I've been doing video for  a while and no matter how entrancing I've never had a memory for a scene of video.  When I think about a subject my brain conjures up a still image.  The moving footage doesn't resonate in the same way.  It has power, yes, but no stickiness.  In the same way that movies are transient and what we really remember is the emotion and the dialogue but not the stunning shot.  (although there are a handful of exceptions).  But still images have a singular power to tattoo layers of information right onto some part of the brain.  And they stick there and become symbols for ideas, experiences and emotions.  And even many years later that stickiness in the brain speaks to the power of the single image.

When we look over the history of the last century or even of last week it's not the documentary footage that we remember because our brain is not good at cataloging so many interwoven frames into a composite for good storage.  Our brains crave the single, fully formed and singular image in their cataloging process.  Nothing else comes close.

There's lots of grainy motion picture footage from the Viet Nam war but the images we remember are the still images of the cursory execution of a captured officer taken by Eddie Adams.  We remember Ut's photo of the girl running down a road burned by napalm.  Images from Iraq trump footage from Iraq, in the stores of our memories.  

And so it is also with our personal images.  We might have film of our fathers and mothers but our memories are stabilized, reinforced and preserved by the still images we covet.  And it's more than nostalgia it's brain science.  It's the science of memory and vision.

And so,  I've come full circle and entrusted my wonder and amazement at life to my still camera.  Video is a powerful marketing tool and it works in the "here and now" but still images have a resonance or a repeating "pass along" factor that can't be beat.  If you take a photo of an event that is powerful to you its resonance remains undiminished and this is the true power of photography.  To be able to evoke memories and emotions and context without even needed to re-see the photograph once you've initially experienced it.  And re-experiencing it can be an additive experience as new subsequent learning is leveraged into your subconscious appraisal of the viewing experience.

I long labored under the depressing idea that the art form I had come to love so much was dying.  That we were in the process of writing its obituary.  Only to rediscover that it has a power that other media can't match and for that reason alone it earns it's place in the hierarchy of visual art.  It is the pervasive nowness of video that gives it power.  It's the staying power of still images that gives them their pervasive value.  That's not going away and neither are we.

In the past seven years we've lived thru so much and so many cultural adaptations have been made as a result of our diminishing economic power and our fear of global events, relentlessly presented.  We are all in a funk of post traumatic stress re-order and it colors our perceptions of value and purpose.  But one thing I am sure of and that is we photographers will always want to photograph the things we find special so we can make that indelible tattoo on our own brains of the things we never want to forget.  And that's why this is such a valuable art.  Photography = permanent brain tattoo.

Here's good philosophy for your business. For any business

http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2012/08/the-race-to-the-bottom.html

I don't always agree with Seth Godin but this one is absolutely right on the money.

Below: An unrelated image just for fun...


This image was shot at used book store that no longer exists. It was taken with the first camera I ever bought for myself: A Canon Canonet QL 17. I may trade a lot of gear but I still have that camera from 1975.

8.22.2012

randomized input.

So much cooler than mulch.

I had several meetings downtown today and while I was walking between them I came across some interesting landscaping. Instead of the usual crushed granite or cedar mulch this particular condo project used color glass in their garden beds. It looked very cool. I whipped the Sony Nex 7 up to my eye and shot a few frames to share. When I got back home and looked at the files I realized just how much detail there is a nice, 24 meg file.  A lot. I've been using the 7 as my walking around camera for several weeks now and I've yet to find a real downside to the machine. I even like the kit lens. I think I am the only Sony owner who does.

Oh Deer.

Ben's cross country team is practicing earlier this week.  He has to be at Barton Springs Pool by 6:30 am and since I am his permanently dedicated driver I also had to be there at 6:30. After I dropped him off I came back home to grab a towel for swim practice. My workout at the pool, half way between the house and Barton Springs, doesn't get started until 7 am. When I came back out of the house my front yard was full of deer. Again. Since I had my camera around my neck I pulled it up to my eye and shot a few frames. If we go back into recession it's good to know that we've got a convenient source of protein just outside the front door. Last week there were nine in the front yard.

A relic of yesteryear. Katz's Deli and Momo's.

On my way back from my last meeting to my car I walked by the old Katz's Deli building. For about 20 years Marc Katz ran a 24 hour deli/restaurant that was a "one of a kind" in Austin. Right on West Sixth St.  He also had a night club upstairs. The yellow taxi was a defacto sign. The whole operation was a victim of the recession. 7 and the kit lens. Nice "Sony" color.

I want a truck like this...

I think it would be kinda cool to take photography and video back to their blue collar roots and have an old truck like this one that we drive around from assignment to assignment. I'd have shelves with gear on one side and a work station with a laptop and a big monitor on the other.  We drive into the parking lot at some giant, international client's headquarters, load up a cart and go in to shoot headshots or products.  Then we'd come back out and put the gear in the truck. I'd sit at the workstation and work on the files and we'd deliver them before we left the parking lot. Kind of like an electrician or a plumber.  And we'd get paid like electricians and plumbers as well, big bucks, on the barrelhead. Of course we'd take credit cards, and checks, and cash. I wonder if the tacos are any good...


Finally, someone is wrapping the busses. It's about time.

For decades the buses in Austin have been boring white. No ads, no fun treatments. Now, at least we have some color and pizzazz. Of course, this being Texas, the bus is still 95% empty but now you really can't tell because the wraps make it harder to look inside. I would ride the bus but it's about twice as quick to ride a bike from my place. A governmental official once did the math and calculated that if we took the budget for the Metropolitan Transit Authority we could buy every bus rider a brand new SUV and all the gas they'd ever need. Interesting math. We're about five years from choking to death on downtown traffic but that's what it will eventually take to get Texans and Austinites to come to grips with the need for good public transportation. The Europeans coming for the Formula One (corporate welfare/giveaway) race in November will be shocked when they discover that they'll need a rental car or taxi to go anywhere. Especially to the big race. The above image is a quick snap shot from the 7.

A "daring" take on a cheese Kolache.

I did not have my beta iPhone 5 with me this morning so I shot my pastry with my Nex 7. What a meaningless shot. But it reminds me how good a cheese kolache is when paired with a covering of tiny chocolate bits. The Nex 7 kit lens focuses surprisingly close. I got this one at Whole Food so it must be healthy and organic.  Not quite vegan.

I know this is a crappy post but it's been a long day with lots of time spent doing post production of food images at the computer. I retouched 48 images today. That's a lot. I worked on creating "good head" for beers, nice ice cubes for mixed drinks, real, red tomatos for burgers, sharp and fresh looking sushi and augmented juicy-ness for a one pound pork shank.  And I finished them all off with a quick trip through the structure feature in SnapSeed. Yes. I'll try to do better tomorrow....

Refunds will be going out soon...

Calamari with JalapeƱo Slices.


Shooting food is fun. Like doing a puzzle. A puzzle that falls apart after five or ten minutes.

lighting: Elinchrom Monolight with small beauty dish through two 4x4 foot Chimera diffusion (one stop) panels (side by side) on the left side. Elinchrom Monolight in a 2 by 3 foot softbox from the back of the set. Westcott FastFlags reflector panel as a passive fill to the right of the set.

camera: Sony a77 with 85mm f2.8 DT lens. 

Calamari: Devoured by photographer, assistant and art director after shooting.

See a collection of my food shots here: http://www.kirktuck.com/site/Food.html#grid

8.21.2012

OMG. I saw this video at The Online Photographer and it summed up everything I think about smart phones. Really.



Copyright 2012 Adam Sacks.

Staying Flexible. Being successful.

Belinda sorting through Kodachrome Slides.

Life, work, gear, the economy, what you thought you knew...it changes all the time. Photographers have been living through some big changes since 2001 and it's been a painful transition for most of us who've been in the business the longest. Why? Because we got used to doing things in a certain way and the rate of change seemed nearly static for such a long time. Along with digitalization came accelerated change in three or four directions at once. Good clients who refused to learn web design and all things digital just kinda went away. For good. And that was sad because a lot of them really knew their way around print design and pure design. A lot of job categories like corporate event photography shifted more and more to video coverage or in-house documentation and away from a lucrative still photo assignment. A lot of corporate media buys went to the web and web only jobs don't always command the rates (or some of the skills) that print did.

But we've always had only a handful of choices when confronted with the oncoming locomotive of change. We could exit the market. We could try to "niche" the market or we can accept that things are going to constantly change and we have the choice of diving in and learning to glide along the new path. Or sit around on the old tracks and wait to get hit by the train.

There's power in flexibility. I know because my business has gone through an amazing gamut of change over the last ten years. I've gone from travelling several weeks out of the month, doing corporate events in crazy places, to doing more and more local work. I've written five books about photography. I've done a small share of the dreaded workshop circuit. I've changed my tools, my marketing, my attitude and my point of view and my expectations. And the one thing I'm certain of is that I'm not certain about much.

Swimmers can be as wonky about factoids as the palest IT guy can be wonky about software systems. We talk a lot about technique and we read about trends. One big trend in swimming is to put more time and effort into optimizing your kick in freestyle and butterfly.  And there are two kinds of kickers: Good kickers and bad, inefficient kickers.

The thing that separates the two types? Ankle flexibility, lower back flexibility and overall flexibility.  A swimmer with flexible ankles gets power from both his downkick and his upkick.  A less flexible swimmer uses more energy and more oxygen to go a lot slower.  The slow swimmer/kicker is fighting his own inflexibility.  And you could see it in the underwater shots at the Olympics.  Those amazing dolphin kicks of the walls. You could see Michael Phelp's shoulder flexibility as he stretched out his arms on the starting blocks.  The new mantra for aging swimmers? More yoga.

Lately I've been stressing to my audience, here at the VSL, that we get a lot of misinformation from the photo forums scattered across the web, especially when it comes to the profession of photography. People tend to parrot the wisdom they've heard from a generation of stars who made their names and their careers in the days before digital. The days of slow change. But it's old information. It's based on a time before so many twists and turns. It's a map from the days before we built the new roads.  And it makes me angry to read pronouncements about "the way" professionals do just about anything. As though there is a "best practices" manual for creativity...

Here's my advice for the kinderdigi who read the forums to learn what they can. Read the technical stuff, the nuts and bolts of actually shooting and then try it out for yourself. Prove the concept before you blindly accept it.  But understand that a lot of old pros have tons of great technical information about lighting, etc. that will be very, very valuable for you. You'll have to adapt it to your vision and your way of seeing the world in front of your camera.  But stop short of blindly taking advice about how we (used to) bill, buy gear, market, value work, etc. unless you carefully vet the information and test it in your own markets.

Just because someone coasted into the middle of the decade on pure momentum doesn't mean that they have the magic sauce going forward.  No one really knows.  We know that you have to market but we're not sure how.  We know that you need to keep growing your style but unless you're busy inventing one you have no idea what will be next.

I remember sitting at a professional association meeting just six years ago. I suggested that commercial and advertising (not retail) photographers accept credit cards (the second hardest thing in professional photography is to get paid in a reasonable amount of time) and the old guard snickered and told the crowd that real professionals would never do that and real clients would never pay that way. I had been demanding payment from Dell and Motorola via credit card since the late 1990's....  Now it's becoming common practice.  Had I listened to advice like that in the 1990's I would have spent another decade waiting those 30, 60, 90 days for payment from Fortune 100 companies and then hearing, "You'll have to start the billing process over again, we lost your paperwork..."

It's up to every generation of photographers to create their own path. I can only suggest that you start with our best practices and build on them because we can't see things from the same point of view that your generation has. Use the stuff that works for you but be ready to re-invent new pathways to success. It's really all about staying flexible. Now, if only there was Yoga for Photo Businesses....

Here are the rules: There are no rules.

My advice to my generation and other who've started to become inflexible. Stretch like hell.  Take risks. Try new stuff. Don't rely on old wisdom. And never give up. If you're not having fun you need to make it fun or find something you like doing better.

Make the process of re-invention your mantra and never say, "the traditional way to...."




8.19.2012

Buying habits are different for amateurs and professionals? Total bullshit.

One of the wealthiest men in my circle of friends is so thrifty that he only allows himself to go out and buy coffee at a coffee shop one day a week. A bunch of us meet to socialize and the lure of the social network outweighs his aversion to spending any money whatsoever.  When he joins us he gets a medium sized coffee. He has an affinity card (free for the sign up) at the coffee house and it buys him a refill for free. When we're all getting ready to leave he gets his refill. This is not to drink on the way home. He explained it to me once. He puts the cup of coffee in the refrigerator at his house and then, the next morning he microwaves his free refill and enjoys his "free" cup of coffee.

If he were a photographer he would buy one camera and one camera only.  That camera would be so carefully researched it would make Phd. candidates flinch. He would use it till the leatherette peeled off, the screen darkened, and the buttons were no longer usable. And, yes, he would maximize his initial investment until it was no longer possible to use the camera.

And then I have friends who have modest jobs but they spend their money with pleasure. They take vacations and splurge on fun stuff. They have hobbies and they buy books instead of ordering everything for free at the library.  They'll buy another cup of (fresh) coffee the next day.  They enjoy the things that spending money can buy them. 

If they were photographers they'd change gear when they saw real advantages from new product introductions.  Things that would make their jobs easier or, the files better. They wouldn't be focused on the gear, especially, but they would be cognizant of how innovation could bring them pleasure.  

Finally I have a group of friends who have to have the best of everything. If they vacation they do it in St. Moritz instead of Durango. They drive just the right car, own just the right automatic watch and eat in the restaurants of the minute.

If they were photographers they'd be lining up to pre-order the best of everything.  The newest Leica M10, the Fuji X1 Pro type 2 and whatever cool Canon or Nikon body was "of the moment."  And just as they have a Range Rover to drive to workout and an M6 to drive to the office they would have the "walkabout" camera system (Nex or M4:3) as well as the full bore, big dog system. If they were really into photography they'd also have the cool medium format system of the day as well.

But these are not photographer specific types, these are people types and they exist on some inexact curve from thriftiest to most indulgent.  The profession of photography is made up of all kinds of people.  There is no one successful type that dominates our industry.  There is no single set of buying habits that signals the highest probability of success.

One professional photographer I know here in town is so cheap he's probably still using the Nikon D1x he bought when he first started to dip his toes into digital photography.  He does okay in business.  There's another professional photographer who always has the latest of everything and the best. He's into medium format for his work, and the latest Canon, with all the lenses relevant to his business, and he dabbles in smaller camera systems as well.  Hell, he's even into film Leicas and Hasselblads (it's not me, honest) but even though he outspends the first photographer by a wide, wide margin when it comes to gear he is also at the top of his game and is the busiest and highest paid photographer in our affluent market. As a percentage of income his gear acquisitions are not out of line with anyone else's.  He just has more to spend.  It's like the tax argument with Mitt Romney:  He's only paying 13% but he's paying more in sheer volume than the other 99%.

Lately, when I read a forum response about my own "reckless spending" and fickle buying  nature, when it comes to equipment, some self proclaimed "old sage" will chime in and mention that "the real professional photographers would never rashly buy equipment." As if to dismiss my professional relevance and tenure with his specious pronouncement.  He always goes on to say, "They buy the best stuff out there and use it for a long, long time."  This tells me that the poster has no sample group of photographers large enough to make any kind of statistically relevant observation of fact, and also that he may live in a severely depressed market where every family and business must make due with what's at hand instead of upgrading.

There is no statistically sound basis for understanding the spending models of different working photographers. There are some with huge trust funds who can buy whatever they want.  Some are optimistic about their chances of success and so are willing to take risks to buy the ever evolving tools they see as necessary.  Some are aging out of the profession and are reticent to buy stuff that won't give them some sort of quick and guaranteed return.  Some feel trapped in the profession and are looking for a way out.  To them the easy money is gone and it doesn't make sense to throw good money after bad.

Gear has gotten cheap for some photographers. You can buy so many really great cameras for under $2,000 dollars.  Lenses hold their relative value which means changing camera systems isn't so onerous. Former president Reagan re-wrote the tax laws so professionals can write off, in the year of purchase, large amounts of equipment (ACRS). Some states have sales tax breaks for gear that you use in the creation of images for resale.  The old, film age accounting rules no longer apply.  The adherence to the old rules might actually be a hinderance for creative workers who use tools to their maximum effect and then evolve into the next tool. There is an advantage to being the first adopter of a trend or style... Who could have guessed that video in still cameras would become so good so soon? If you shoot a lot of video upgrading to a camera system with EVF's might make all the economic sense in the world. If you got a travel assignment with no budgets for assistants you might consider dragging around a huge roller full of big, heavy Nikon professional stuff but, if the subject matter allows it, you might also find it a smart investment (even for one extended job) to buy a much smaller and lighter micro four thirds system (Olympus OMD?  Sony Nex?) and save your shoulders, back and luggage overage charges. For most applications the files may be just right.

The logic that a photographer buys and holds is a logic based on a time when most equipment was carried around by assistants, used with lots of lights and didn't change much from year to year.  That logic is upside down now. Absolutely upside down. We're almost at the point where it makes more sense to buy and use your gear for the big job at hand, sell it and then choose different gear for the next, different style job. Matching your gear to the project.  Or to rent specialty gear as needed and keep personal systems small and cheap enough so that you can turn direction in heartbeat.

When  someone tells you, "That's the way professional photographers do it." Take their statement with a big grain of salt because every professional is different and follows their own patterns of acquisition for pleasure and for business. I can pretty much tell you this, the photographer who rarely changes equipment has either lost their pleasure for the business or is so involved in what they shoot that any upgrade is just meaningless.  In the first camp are the gruff old cusses who wear the khaki vests and talk about "how we used to do it in the old days."  The second camp is filled (sparsely) with artists who found their tools and can't imagine using anything else.  Then there's this giant Bell Curve in the middle. And for the reading impaired........"That's just my personal opinion."

I might tell you (out of generational spite) that no professional would ever use the LCD screen of a camera to compose and shoot with. That an OVF or EVF was mandatory "pro gear." But I would be wrong and at a disadvantage because of my reticence to use a tool in the way that thousands of younger photographers (and their clients) are comfortable with every day. When reading the forums be sure to put your bullshit detector on high. Not everything you read on the web came straight from the keyboard of an infallible genius.....































Added today (August 20th): Think that pro gear is what you really need to do great work?
Read what Michael Reichman found out: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/reviews/kidding.shtml