I'm reading a delightful book on photography. Ok, that's not such a stretch, so let me explain. I love books about photography and photographers, and even the occasional nuts-and-bolts kind of thing. There's always something to learn. But I find myself moving into uncharted territory, and so far it's a pretty incredible trip.
The book in question is Zen Camera: Creative Awakening With A Daily Practice In Photography by David Ulrich (Watson-Guptill, 2018). Yeah, not the usual f/stop and shutter-speed kind of thing, but one with much deeper implications than your typical how-to.
I have long been a practitioner of zen photography, I just wasn't aware of it. When you make your living at it, you sometime go on auto-pilot. But here's the thing: the yin-yang of creativity is pretty compelling. On the one hand, it is autobiographical: it is a statement to the world, a reply to the universe. On the other, it is intensely private, a singular moment of personal reflection. Photography in particular is built upon a lifetime of these moments.
I see pictures constantly throughout the day; some are virtual and remain in my mind, while many others compel me (often unconsciously) to bring the camera to my eye. When this becomes your meditation, it's no longer possible not to see. "The camera" says the wonderful Dorothea Lange, "is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." This is my practice of zen photography. This is what's starting to make sense.
I have my own students now, informally, mostly, though I am forever a student myself. I do my best to lead them astray. Really, we're all just a bunch of happy wanderers. I hope they -- and you, as well -- keep developing a life-long vision and philosophy about what is beautiful and honest. Your eye will always be looking inward and outward, forwards and sideways. I'm working on it myself, and so I hit the books from time to time. I really like them.
Even the nuts-and-bolts kind of thing.
Photography, we're being told, is good for your head. Well, more specifically, the act of taking a photograph, good or bad. This bit of happy news comes to us by way of a recent article I found on PetaPixel (one of my favorite sources for all things photography) by one Michael Zhang, and it aims to make us feel good about something we've been doing all along. At least that's the idea.
Apparently the trick is to "shoot every day and post online". Guilty as charged, but not sure I feel any better for the effort. Then again, I'm nobody's poster child for good mental heath. Most life-long photonistas probably aren't. But this behavior, according to research, does in fact seem to promote wellness and general mental health. The key is the sharing part. We don't create in a vacuum. Even back before social media we were desperate for ways to showcase our work.
I don't doubt there's something to all this, and it's instructive to figure out what it is. I take photos every day, and as most of you know, I'm not shy about sharing them online, either. Moreover, it's something I have long encouraged all my young photography friends to do also, though less in the spirit of mental health than in this is what we do. It doesn't need to make us feel warm and fuzzy, but in the end that's hardly the point. Creativity is a must, and it often comes at a price.
Photography should force us to challenge ourselves, creatively and intellectually, and that often takes us to uncomfortable places. It is here we grapple with our demons, and all the posting in the world will not assuage them, but one hopes we become better in the process.
And that, I do believe, is the point: to embrace the moment, to reach deep down inside and find something there worth the telling. It ain't always easy, but it is always necessary.
And in the long run, who knows. Maybe it'll be good for your head.
I wonder what became of The Zone System. Remember that? Developed by none other than Ansel Adams, It was a powerful way to pre-visualize a black & white print before making the exposure. It required accurately measuring the light in a given scene and adjusting the development of the negative to control for the desired values in the highlights and shadows. It was pretty neat. I lived and died by it. But then, I had a lot of time on my hands.
Obviously, it did not celebrate serendipity. It was a tightly controlled process, anticipating an ideal future image, and that was ok. It worked. I spent many years with Tri-X and Edwal FG7, making black & white prints I remain proud of. But boy, sometimes that seems like it was a lifetime ago, and in fact it was.
I don't have any black & white film anymore, nor my really cool darkroom. I have software and the barely refined sensibilities of a zen photographer. The Zone System, as a photographic device, so refined, so elegant, seems now like an out-of-phase anachronism, at least to the way I approach photography today. But are there not lessons we can still take from it? I think there are.
The process broke down light into nine distinct, measurable units of gray, proceeding from pure black to pure white, with graduating shades in between, each predictably metered. You controlled where you wanted a particular shade (and of course its corresponding degree of detail) to fall in the print by controlling how you developed the negative. Selecting paper grade and other considerations were mastered as well, and this is but a light glossing over of the system, but you get the idea. If you were paying attention, what you learned was not so much about light meters and chemistry, but indeed how to look and really see. And what you saw was what light is, and what it does.
Chance, as Adams and others have said, favors the prepared mind. Without understanding and appreciating what light is, and what it does, there is no serendipity, no moment to capture alive and breathing. The magic of light, all of it -- tones, values, textures, mysteries and whispers -- resides deep in my soul. The Zone System taught me this.
It's my Zen System.
You wouldn't think winter is a great time to travel, but it's actually a great time to hit the road and reflect on the view. And I'm not talking tropical vacay, no; my latest little walkabout was a late winter/early spring jaunt to the cold climes of Chicago -- one of my favorite places any time of the year. Visiting family there is a joy I look forward to every year, but the sublime pleasures of this city are nestled in the art galleries and museums. (There's a couple great bars there, too, but that's probably a different story.)
While wandering about the magnificent Art Institute, I found myself completely taken by a landscape painted by Camille Pissarro, considered by some the father of French Impressionism. The Chicago Art Institute houses one of the world's finest collections of Impressionism, and photographers -- even those otherwise unfamiliar with art history -- consider it influential. It's easy to see why.
As I sat there gazing at the painting, trying to lose myself within it, I was struck by its immediacy, how it captured a fleeting light, a composition at once worldly and, paradoxically, quite ordinary. It was, in a word, photographic. And this, of course, sent my mind wandering to far off places.
The Impressionists and photography came into this world at roughly the same time, and I think both have had a profound and lasting effect on each other. Art historians and scholars (if you haven't noticed, I am definitely neither) can argue this point, but I can speak for me. My earliest training and influences were all in painting, long pre-dating my entry into the photographic world, and I recognize that consciously or unconsciously I have always tried to somehow incorporate that influence into my work. I don't want my photographs to look like watercolors or oil paintings, no, but as I've gotten older in this field I've begun to recognize that I've walked down their paths too, and carried some of the dust along with me. It's been a fine and beautiful stroll.
Couple of good bars along the way too, by my reckoning.
February is a fine month. Up in these parts (the Pacific Northwest) it skirts that untidy line separating winter from spring, so the weather is always unsettled and interesting. It's just made for photography. Plus it's my birthday month so I can always count on a little celebrating and some fine añejo tequila. And it's the month I can always count on a great road trip to somewhere with my brother Jim. Nothing but good times.
2018 February fell right in line with these great expectations. Whereas last year at this time we plunged head-long into the beautiful rain from San Francisco down to Monterey Bay, this year we enjoyed some soft sunlight on the old Lewis & Clark highway along the Columbia River. The lower reaches of this great river, especially on the Washington side, are little explored but so well worth the effort.
There are two ways to wander, of course. One is wandering aimlessly, and I put a lot of stock in it. No particular place to go, no particular purpose in mind, it's a meditation and a presence. Good photography sometimes comes of it, but it's not always the point. Who looks outside, dreams; says Carl Jung; who looks inside, awakens. Sometimes you can wander aimlessly just sitting quiety by yourself.
But the second way is purposeful and celebrates good company. This is the purview of the walkabout, and I draw as much inspiration from my companions as I do from my surroundings. Good photography is often the natural result of shared enthusiasm.
So I relish my road trips with Jim, I look forward to the inspiration and the open road, and I especially love the unsettle weather -- inside and out. I love February.
Nothing but good times.
Let's review the old ways, shall we? The creation of a photographic image has always been a multi-stage process. Load the film, trip the shutter, unload the film onto stainless steel reels to develop, and then, finally, fire up the enlarger and have at it. Even in a digital world, the process is largely, if only slightly imperfectly, analogous. Insert card into reader, create folder, download images. In other words, it's always been, as Mr. Adams instructed us, a formally constructive event from beginning to end.
I have no problem with any of this, of course. In fact, I've been celebrating it for almost half a century, so I'm in no position to be critical. But I've recently discovered that the way I'm approaching my craft now has turned this paradigm upside down. I refer, of course, to my ever-expanding use of the iPhone, and my growing awareness of photography's zen. They arrived at this party in separate cars but are leaving it hand-in-hand.
What I'm embracing is the counter-intuitive way I go about creating the image now. There is no second-part after I make the exposure, no loading up the card-reader, no folders to create and label. I go everywhere with my iPhone and am constantly moved -- compelled, even -- to take pictures. These then magically appear in my Photos program on the Mac with no further effort on my part. They're just...there. It's a wholly dissociative process, and I'm happy to take creative advantage of it.
I'm allowed to actually discover, rather than re-construct, the image that had somehow captured my attention in the first place. Yes, occasionally it's disappointing (life is like that, sometimes), but more often than not it's fresh and surprising (life is like that sometimes, too). I've gone back, usually much later, to see and be moved by elements in an image that I was not really aware of at the time I took it. I'm seeing them again for the first time. And that's the point.
Photography is all about, and only about, being in the moment. I'm trying not to think about what will come after, I want only to be lost in the visual now. The discoveries will come later, and will arrive on the wings of their own moment. So I'm sorry, Ansel. I'm no longer pre-visualizing, I'm just, well...visualizing.
Whatever process you use to feed that creative voice is great and legit and possibly even groovy; don't let anyone tell you otherwise. But this is what I'm using more and more to find my voice, and my zen. It's been working, it's been fun, and it's all I really need.
Well, that and good walking shoes. And coffee.
So I've already blown my New Years resolution to post a blog every week; lets just add that to my list to lose weight and cut back on the tequila. Fine ideas, noble even, but only marginally in the category of possibilities. But here I am nonetheless.
What brings me here are my reflections on a day trip my wife and I took this past weekend out to the Columbia Gorge -- specifically the Dalles and the Dalles Dam -- to witness a feeding migration of the great American bald eagle. We were invited to join a group sponsored by the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, of which she is a long time member. When it came to the introductions, I mentioned that I was merely an acquaintance of said gorge, but the humor was lost on this august group so early in the morning as it was. In any event the eagles made a impressive showing.
The problem is, I'm not really a wildlife photography guy, so I don't have any wildlife-appropriate lenses. If you know me, you know I'm philosophically opposed to the mindless accumulation of photography gear. Simpler is better, says I, although deep down I'm just as much a gearhead as the rest of them. But my longest lens, a 55-200mm zoom for my Fuji, was clearly designed for non-eagle shooting (although I have some great photos of squirrels raiding our bird feeder). My wife, a watercolor artist, was appropriately outfitted with powerful binoculars and an artist's imagination. I ended up taking photos of my beautiful surroundings, and made no complaints for the opportunity. It was a gorgeous morning.
It's pretty simple and obvious, really: if you aspire to be a wildlife guy (or girl) you have to get with the program and put out the bucks for some seriously long glass. You can only get so close to a bald eagle. Or a grizzly bear, for that matter. My little 200mm lens was the proverbial knife at a gunfight. I have friends who publish world-class wildlife photography with lenses that are upwards of 10-times that humble length. And all of them enjoy getting up before sunrise with much better attitudes that mine.
As for me, I'll enjoy the ambiance. The Columbia Gorge is a treasure; it's Oregon's gift to a barely civilized world (well, that, and a Willamette Valley pinot). And oh, that river. Rain or shine, blustery winter or blue summer, it never fails to impress beyond words. I'm hardly a sentimental guy, but in all my many years of gazing upon it (including my pre-verbal childhood in Washington, the son of an adventurous father) it always takes my breath away. A humble lens can capture its many moods, and probably capture yours too; eagles are only optional. That's why this gorge, and its river, has so many friends.
Or in my case, acquaintances.
I've become a bit of a math and science nerd somewhat late in life, and I blame photography. Oh sure, I took most of the requisite classes in high school and college, but I hardly stood out as a model student. By my sophomore year in a Catholic high school -- in Wyoming, no less -- I had already moved on to pursuits more, shall we say, extracurricular than academic. I was fortunately more successful in college (and, later, graduate school) with a more committed corp of teachers, but a real and abiding interest only came about as I embraced my photography as a likely career option. More exemplary lives than mine have been sacrificed for less.
My first surprising love affair was with chemistry, a subject I enjoyed but struggled with in school. But when it came time to learn and master the darkroom, it was love at first sight. Ok, maybe second sight, but I had great training, rigorous and thorough. It went far beyond just the time-and-temperature recipes to a real grasp of why and how the chemistry works, which gave me a genuine mastery of the craft. I could make a negative sing. I spent a few wonderful years as a color-systems manager of a high-end pro lab, and mastering the mathematical and chemical intricacies of the tri-linear E6 process control (damn, I love the sound of that!) brought out my ultimate and unapologetic geek.
And if I can put on my grandpa hey-you-kids-get-the-hell-off-my-lawn hat for an indulgent minute, I would be remiss not to make at least a passing comment on our pre-automation years. We made spot-on exposure calculations in real time, right inside our little heads, with that old ISO (well, back then it was ASA) and distance-to-subject formula. It's algebra, and it's necessary, just like Sister Mary Pat said it would, back in 10th grade. Solve for x, dude. It ain't rocket science.
Don't get me wrong, I'm just as happy to have TTL and multimeters as you are. I've even come to rely on the Aperture-priority mode on my little Fuji. And that, I think, is the point: let your inner geek embrace the technology, rather than the other way around. Knowing the process and understanding the principles of our craft is what makes it art. Just because it's digital and not a messy tray of Dektol doesn't mean it's less demanding. You don't have to solve for x, because it's standing right there in front of you, quietly moving you onward:
You've come this far, pilgrim. Now what?
I'm not sure who it was that said that success was 2% inspiration and 98% perspiration, but it sounds like poor hygiene, even if the math is right. When I stated in my last blog that I try to see at lest 100 photos every day, I created a minor stir. How is that possible, I was asked, and for heaven's sake ... why? It's pretty simple, actually. Perspiration comes with the territory. What I'm after is that elusive 2%.
When I was coming of age in photography, the Group f64 ethos of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and others was starting to give way to a post-modern vibe, which I never came to fully embrace. Or fully understand, for that matter, but I'm old school and a little thick. The iconic image of the era, stuck forever in my mind, is Weston's famous photograph of a bell pepper: simple, straightforward, infinitely complex. By trying to reproduce it ourselves, mere novitiates, we learned a lot about photography -- lighting, posing, darkroom technique, printing -- and sometimes, something about ourselves. It was always more than just a pepper. Art as rorschach.
Visit any great art museum in any city and what will you find? Students, canvases on easels or pen & paper on a lap, trying for all their might to copy the great masters. Their aim isn't forgery, of course, but to practice the techniques and style that so captivates them that they may, in turn, be better artists themselves. It's always been thus; great teachers encourage it, as did mine. The student who fails to surpass his master, Michelangelo himself once said, fails his master.
So here I am looking at 100 pictures a day, mostly (but not exclusively) photographs and mostly (but not exclusively) anything but peppers. The interwebs make this a pretty easy deal. 500px, ViewBug, google searches for modern trends in portraits or award-winning landscapes are just starting points. I'm surrounded by books and a ton of magazines, too -- most are predictably tech-centric, but others (like Black & White Magazine) -- are gems. And of course my friends, acquaintances, and fellow trolls on Facebook and Instagram are constantly mined for inspiration, as well as real brick-and-mortar galleries and museums. Nothing beats a beautiful, original photographic print in all its authentic glory.
And that's about all I know, but I'm still something of a hack. I'm happily working on it, and that's why I'm maybe just a wee bit obsessed with looking at all the photos I possibly can in this lifetime (no telling what I may be content with in the next) and making a few of my own. Photography is funny thing to be obsessed with. The more pictures we take, the more we need still to explore: in the studio, on the streets, in our heads. The 2% greases the skids.
The rest just makes me sweat.
This may sound like I'm selling out, but here goes anyway. Well, maybe not full-blown blasphemy, but certainly my contrarian side will be again in full view. And all this while i'm really in a pretty good mood too. The summer is finally over. Now I can get some work done.
And here's what's been on this cranky mind: a couple of articles I read online worrying about the state of creative photography these days when everyone -- everyone -- is walking around with every manner of imaging device, the thought being that ubiquity was cheapening the field. Practitioners themselves are living with a big dose of self-doubt, too. A young friend confessed to me last week that, absent training and a really good camera, he wasn't sure that what he was doing could legitimately be called photography. Well of course it is, and more power to ya.
But the argument goes back a long, long way; all the way to the beginning. Creative imaging, of course, was limited to what the trained human hand could put down on canvas or paper, so the invention of mechanical devices and their constituent chemistry fully democratized the creative process. Any person clever enough (and patient enough) could now produce a marketable image. Painters must indeed have felt their livelihoods, if not their egos, threatened.
Though it was George Eastman who cemented the imaging revolution in the popular mind, the pandemic of digital technology gave it its universal weight. The sheer enormity of the number of images being made daily -- hourly -- is indeed overwhelming and may otherwise bury the gems that still come through, but gems there are, and they're worth seeking out. As I told my friend, I make it a point to see at least 100 photographs every day, and read at least a couple of thoughtful articles pertaining to the art and craft (and, yes, the history) of photography.
In the end, it doesn't matter a whole heck of a lot what gets your creative juices flowing. Whether you have a nifty new camera or a garden variety smartphone, pay heed to the impulse to use it. The urge to create something beautiful is so human and so necessary, and if it takes a hundred tries to get the one you want, so be it. Nobody's keeping count.
Many of us have spent our lives studying this craft and perfecting our skills to make a good living from it. This may be the path you've started down; I know I'm approaching the end of mine. But if we have in common the shared love of a beautiful photographic image and the insistent urge to create them, then we're on the same journey. Legitimately, authentically, photography.
Blasphemy, I know. Right?
Oh, and a p.s: My friend Keri helped upload my blog to Squarespace (they're the greatest!) making it more seamlessly integrated into my website and also easier to post a comment and subscribe to via email. I encourage both, and look forward to hearing from you. I love a good argument.
I began writing this post, after such a long summer's absence, in the wee hours of the morning out on the Oregon coast. We rented a little house near Otter Rock, somewhere between Depoe Bay and Newport, with stellar views of the Pacific and the night sky. After a summer of far too many heat waves and the usual stresses, the overwhelming silence and cool morning breeze are treasured beyond words. I live for these moments, ungodly early though they be.
Our coast is a photographer's dream, yet here I am at daybreak in this fine study with an equally fine view, typing out words, channeling my best Ivan Doig as he writes Winter Brothers, and not slopping down on the beach in my flip-flops seeking the magical light. I blame the coffee and the solitude; they're both great company.
But the cool thing about this visit was that we were accompanied by my two-and-a-half year-old granddaughter. The sheer delight of her seeing the ocean for the first time was just amazing. That's what's so great about kids, and what we may find instructive: they don't just live for the moment, their lives are the moment. There's no past to reflect upon, no future to fret over. There's just right now, and right now is pretty darn sweet. As a photographer, I hope to take as much delight in seeking out those beautiful moments, regardless of how the effort is teased out by reflecting and fretting. Especially the fretting. It's in my nature.
But I think I know this: if I can truly live in the moment, with or without my camera, then I can use the gift of writing, awkward though mine may be, to reflect on that moment and find peace with it. Believe it or not, I think it helps my photography. It brings that moment -- that image, what I felt at the time -- into as clear a focus as the photo itself. It helps me go forward, and it brings me some joy. It keeps me from fretting.
Just wish it wasn't so damned early.
Hold on to your hats; this coming Saturday -- August 19 -- is a pretty special day. Ok, maybe not as solemnly sentimental as Bastille Day, or as sweetly nonsensical as Valentines Day, but unless your profession has a day celebrating itself, this one rings loud and proud. It is, mis amis, World Photography Day. I don't know if there is a National Accountants Day, or a World House Painters Day; if there isn't, there should be. We should celebrate who we are, and what we do. Photographers understand this.
It's partly history, of course. The exact timeline of what we know as photography is a little murky. Somewhere in the late 1820's, a Frenchman with the unpronounceable name of Nicéphore Niépce made some non-permanent silver chloride images; actual fixing chemistry came a little later. We generally recognize 1839 as the official starting point of our craft. It was in this year that another Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, announced a commercially viable process he called (wait for it...) the Daguerrotype. On August 19 of that year, the French government purchased the patent rights to the process and gave it to the world, a most unusual act of civic generosity. It makes for a fitting birthday, even if nobody knows how the heck to spell Daguerrotype without looking it up.
But history is all about reflection, not celebration, and I'm in the mood to party. Humanitarian and photography groups have formally set aside the day to create and share our photography for the common good. We're encouraged to get out there and take pictures, and there are several hosting sites where we can upload them to share. It's all well and good, even laudable, but I'm left feeling a little like the folks who only go to church on Easter: it ever so slightly misses the point.
Photography is a daily meditation, not an annual celebration, is what I say. Take photos today on your way to work. Heck, take photos at work. And tonight, and tomorrow, and the next day. And don't forget to take time to look at photography, too; online, in books, in magazines, Instagram and, yes, even Facebook. I look at tons of photos every day, everywhere I can, and a lot of them knock my socks off. I need the inspiration, I absolutely live for it, and I bet you do too. So don't forget then that this Saturday, August 19, is World Photography Day.
And you know what? Today is, too.
Only mad dogs and, if we are to believe Noel Coward, Englishmen go out in the noonday sun. I am neither. I don't like it out there. We Oregonians come in two stripes: those who soldier through the gray months to revel in our hot, sunny summers, and those who are just the opposite. Contrarians like me.
But I come to this sad state of affairs more or less honestly. I'm not a complainer -- Northwesterners seldom are, though we'd be easily excused should we start -- but aside from the heat and glare, the light quality positivity sucks. Speaking as a (albeit grumpy) photographer, I find that less of a challenge and more of an annoyance. It's not chasing light, it's being chased by it. There's little to recommend in hard, blocked-out shadows, and even less in squinty light where color and texture lay down to die. It's boring. It's hot. I need beer.
This past week, however, provided a brief respite from the solar ennui. It so happens that a big chunk of British Columbia (home, one might imagine, to more than its fair share of both mad dogs and Englishmen) is ablaze, and all that smoke has blown southward our way. The skies flattened out into a watercolor backdrop, muting both color and depth. Sunsets took on an appearance I can only imagine are commonplace on Mars. Emphysema be damned; I'm walking around in this with my camera.
The grayness and the rain and the lovely cool temperatures will return, as they always do. The colors will soften out and umbrellas will make an appearance. Herein lies the great unfettered joy of wandering about, seeking out those remarkable visual stories that the world puts forth when it rains. I stop whining, or at least cut back on it considerably. By October, it's photography perfection as the brilliant fall colors wrap themselves in a muted autumn sky. (It's also baseball's post-season and the return of hockey, otherwise known as my High Holy Days.)
Art is about passion, in photography and in all else. No matter what philosophical road I may choose to follow this day or that, it boils down to this: my passion is chasing that elusive, quiet, enveloping light.
And going out in the noonday rain.
A friend of my wife dropped by to visit last week. That in itself is unremarkable, of course; my wife does have friends and they do drop by to chat from time to time. But this time, said friend also brought along her vintage -- and damaged -- Canon AE-1 that you see here. I asked her if she wanted me to help get it repaired, but no; it's been dropped one time too many, she lamented, and besides, she doesn't need it anymore. It's old, it's useless, it's impractical. Just keep it.
Boy, can I relate to that.
I am by nature a philosophical person, given to introspection fueled by free time and caffeine overload. This is one of those times. Holding this old camera (carefully, I should point out -- the back doesn't stay on anymore) brought forth colorful memories. In general: what good and exciting times we had back when this camera newly arrived; every day was exciting, photography was something new to explore, and from time to time we made a couple bucks as we honed our skills. And in particular: this was a much-coveted camera, an up-and-comer enticing us Nikon owners; sleek, powerful, sexy, and so damn good.
Yes, the Nikon-vs-Canon argument goes back a long way, far pre-dating the digital era where the discussion takes on a whole new dimension. But there were lots and lots of cameras back then, and everyone had a favorite. Nearly all of them are now long gone. Did any of you ever own a Topcon? A Mamiya-Sekor? Google them if you're curious.
But this Canon AE-1 was different. It was delicious, and we knew it was a game-changer. Technology usually doesn't drive creativity, it should be the other way around. Photography, however, has uniquely held this relationship in symbiosis. Our craft is largely (and sometimes unnecessarily) dependent upon its technology, and the AE-1 was one of those wonderful cameras that could grab you by the collar to get out there and look. You can do better, it told us; trust me.
It has walked along with us on an unforgettable journey, but now this one is relegated to paper-weight status on my bookshelf. I guess that's ok, it's just a machine, after all. It was meant to be outgrown. Fond memories are one thing, but nostalgia and sappy sentimentality are off-putting. If this camera could talk, it would likely tell us to pipe down and keep moving ahead. I did my job, it would say, so just keep doing yours. You can always be doing better.
It's been a busy summer. Lately I've been neck-deep in projects large and small, not the least of which is making and selling prints of my digital photos, some going back as far as the turn of the century. This one, anyway. The process of making photographic prints is something I have had a deep love affair with for decades, and it keeps me up at night, as all great loves will. I find my editing inspiration is at its most lucid 'round about midnight, with the urgency of the hand-held image hot on its heels. Tequila is often involved; the coffee, not for a few hours yet. Bienvenido a mi mundo.
So then, what vexing insight causes me to start writing a blog in these wee hours? A question, actually, and a conundrum: what is an original photograph? I mean, I know well and good what original art is. I know that a painting -- a watercolor, an oil, whatever -- is a unique artifact. Yes, it can be mechanically copied and reproduced countless times, but we instinctively recognize the difference between that painting, directly coming from the hands of the artist, and those reproductions, regardless of their faithfulness to the original source. And we value them accordingly. But can this same dynamic apply to a photograph where, in most cases, the artifact and its means of reproduction are the same?
These thoughts come to me as I make my color prints from a fine Canon printer, complete with color profiles that ensure each print comes off as I intended. And each one I call (unrepentant dilettante that I am) original. But what a difference from the personal black & white work I produced in the darkroom back in another lifetime! We were taught then, of course, to keep meticulous notes on our process, detailing precise measurements of time and chemistry to ensure a likewise high degree of consistency from one print to the next. Ansel did this, and often upon reaching the perfect printing solution would make a dozen or so at a time for his portfolios, each identically cloned.
This I did not do.
No, I operated almost entirely on instinct and mood and serendipity until I came up with just exactly the image I wanted, keeping zero notes, and couldn't have reproduced that same image if I tried. It invariably took several weeks to get the perfect print, and I was in no hurry. My last gallery show of black & white photos, printed from negatives in this cowboy style, was at Broderick Gallery in Portland back in 2000. It consisted of 12 framed images. It took two years to make, and I sold them all. I haven't seen them or made new ones since. I consider them originals.
I feels different now, although I'm happy to report it doesn't take me weeks anymore to produce an acceptable image. At my age, I probably don't have that kind of time to spare, anyway. I do nonetheless spend a great deal of time on a given image, working and re-working, adjusting it to my mood and fickleness over time until I think it says what it needed to say. As mentioned, I have some good color profiles and can faithfully print it out on good paper whenever I want. And a year from now, in the wee hours of some future night, I may very well interpret it all over again for the first time. My moods likely will have changed and the image won't carry with it the burdens of expectation. It'll be new, it'll surprise me, and I'll make a clean print of it. I'll consider that an original, too. Then the sun will rise, I'll have that coffee, and get to work.
Welcome to my world.
I do love to print photos. I spent more than a few years as a professional print-maker in my photo business, both color and black & white. I was rightly proud of my skills too, if I do say so. But in this digital age, I, like a lot of my contemporaries, have been somewhat content to view my images through the virtual lens of a computer screen. Somewhat, I say. It's an uneasy truce, at best.
The truth is, I've sorely missed the process of making prints. In the color lab, we had commercial processors using EP2 (and later, CA4) chemistry, so although my eyes were attuned to the limitless nuances of color, the process itself was straightforward and comfortably automated. But black & white was different. We had the choice of many fine high-silver papers -- different grades, different surfaces -- which have long since disappeared from the shelves of camera stores. We controlled contrast and tone chemically, our tools were time and temperature, and it was very much a messy hands-on affair. We do that work in software nowadays, and that's perfectly ok.
So what did I do but finally invest in a fine color printer. I have been selling my work as individual pieces (long gone are my portrait-shooting and package-printing days) and I sent out my work to good labs to do the job. I assume the work was perfectly good -- I've heard no complaints, but my public may be uncharacteristically compliant -- yet I always felt a little dissatisfied myself.
So here's my paean to shameless commerce. My printer is a doozy, it makes museum-quality prints, and the paper I use -- a Moab® 100% rag -- reminds me of the good ol' days. My website will shortly reflect all this, but suffice to say that my compliant public will now be getting a hand-printed, hand-signed, fully archival print directly from me. I'm making two sizes: a 12" print centered on 11"x14" paper, and a 16" print centered on a 13"x19" paper. Heck, I didn't even raised my prices.
But here's the thing: selling or not, there's just something richly satisfying about making a fine print that can't be experienced in any other way. Sure, I fully enjoy the process of editing an image, and lord knows I've spent a small fortune on hardware and software over the years to be able to do just that, but making it into a lovely print feels like coming full circle. I'm reminded all over again what I love about being a photographer.
And I don't have to wait two days for the print to dry.
I think sometimes we should let events carry us away. This late Oregon spring has been filled with the kind of events I often use as an excuse to keep me from my writing, so lets see if we can put an end to that right now. But what events they have been; some excellent travel (travel is always excellent), some absolutely wonderful photography walkabouts, a scattering of workshops, even a new printer to become acquainted with (more about that next time). But one event, one small moment -- a brief conversation with a friend, actually -- stands out among all the rest, and it stopped me in my tracks.
The conversation was, of course, about photography. Not the usual nuts-and-bolts about cameras and f-stops, but about something very different. My friend was quite expressive about the joy it gave him, that it was very much a spiritual and meditative experience. It was something far removed than the simple recording of images. My friend was not a professional photographer or artist by any means, but photography nevertheless gives him a connection to a deeply wonderful reality. I was moved by his eloquence and I share his passion. But it was the question that he then posed to me that set my mind ablaze: I'm still shooting with film, he said; do I need to switch to digital?
Wow. No, I said, you don't need to do anything, other than stay on your path. But I could only wonder at what devilish dynamic could have given him that kernel of doubt in the first place. My guess is that there is so little in our media that reinforces that joy and so much that dwells on only those nuts and bolts. Nearly every breath-taking landscape, every gorgeous portrait, is made to illustrate the hardware or software of our craft, or a particular artist who has mastered all that. That's all well and good, but I can see where an untrained amateur, even one with a superbly refined eye, may be lead to self-doubt. And I think it's a pity.
Well, I'm going to do my part. Every walkabout I do, every workshop I conduct, will be expressly to help find that joy. Camera tips? exposure advice? absolutely, but in the service of why more than how. That conversation with my friend helped inspire me, so let me return the favor. Let's celebrate the zen of the moment, regardless of what you shoot with. I'm not sure yet what such a workshop might look like, but I think it could be an event worth the making. You in?
We might get carried away.
There's no such thing as a passive observer. Physics tells us this, and so does photography. Peeking in on the interactions of subatomic particles affects their progress; the observer becomes part of the action. We know this happens on a human level, too. We pretend we're just "taking pictures" of people, but there's no standing on the outside looking in, passionless and objective. We become the movers and the moved, the seers and the seen, and although the effect on both parties may at times seem minimal and routine, it is, at other times, profoundly moving indeed.
So what brings me to this rambling state of affairs, you may ask? A recent studio session with my friend Jay marked the approach to the end of a year photographing the progress of his transitioning. Last year we were working off-and-on together (I knew him as Jamie then) and could barely wrap my head around the challenge he had set out for himself. Then he asked if would, from time to time, take some pictures to help mark his progress. Hell yes, my friend. Lets do this.
Change that happens in front of our eyes is sometimes hard to detect, but if it's punctuated every month or so in front of a camera it can be quite dramatic. I really wanted to work in the studio to be as consistent in posing and lighting as possible, and this has made the drama of change so visible. There were no gimmicks of lighting and no photoshop wizardry, just an honest attempt to chronicle what I was observing. It's his story after all, not mine.
Photographically it has been a tremendous project, and I can almost make out the interaction of those particles. Their movements -- this life -- has been unfolding before me these past twelve months in ways unpredictable and moving, but stepping in to photograph them has, I'm sure, altered their trajectory in ways large and small. We've bonded closer as friends. I find myself more attuned to the nuance of quiet voices. The challenge to find clarity in the face of overwhelming change is what some people face everyday; all I can do is bring a camera to my eye and try to give it some space.
Subatomic and all.