Looking In The Right Places ~

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.

An Observant Observer ~

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.

Dr. Science's Color Stuff ~

I have an odd relationship with color. Oh sure, we're friends, but sometimes we place unrealistic demands upon each other. I definitely have something of a split-personality when it comes to color and photography, but I have long since come to embrace the uneasy duality. And I'm not referring to my past analog life where everything was seen with and through black & white film, either.

On the one hand, I am Dr. Science for the clients in my dental photography business. For them, color is a make-or-break deal. They need to see and photograph color with precision and accuracy, and then convey that color information to their dental lab so that they will end up with a product -- a crown, a veneer -- that their patient can wear with satisfaction. No small task, if you ask me.

So when I give my program on the topic of color, the complexities that emerge make it seem like any successful reproduction of color is downright impossible. Truth is, nobody sees color the same way. Women, for example, apparently see a lot more colors than men, and it's not all just an artifact of acculturation. Where they may see canary, dandelion, butterscotch, and lemon, we see ... yellow. And most guys are a bit deficient in blue-green perception compared on average to women -- a fact not lost on me during my many years as a color printer. Those are just a couple examples of the many complexities of seeing and working in color, making my instructions on using digital hardware and software important and oh so relevant. I earn a living off it.

So then, what's on that other hand? Well, it's just me and my zen: a camera and a mindful eye. Color is a suggestion, a starting point, a long walk off a short pier. What it is not is a destination. I'm not always consciously aware of what attracts the camera to my eye; of the many elements that make up an arresting scene, color may or may not be the most compelling. Heck, that's why I often prefer to go shooting on a grey and drizzly day when the role of color is diminished. The only thing I aim to see and photograph with any semblance of precision and accuracy is whatever odd state of mind the image puts me in.

No small task, if you ask me.

A Professional Amateur ~

I love a good, loud headline. Gets my attention, which is exactly the point. So I was pleased to open up an online article from Modern Lens Magazine that told me These 7 Bad Habits Scream "Amateur Photographer." Scream, mind you. How's that for an opening act? Apparently, being an amateur is not fit for respectable folk, so I figured it was up to me to do some deconstructing.

Anyway, I'm not sure professional is necessarily the opposite of amateur; both are fluid and somewhat slippery concepts. Neither is an automatic indicator of talent or the lack thereof; it's pretty much a matter of where the 1099's get sent. I know many an amateur creating -- and selling, if they're lucky -- incredible photography. It's just not their day job.

Besides, there are lots of professionals who aren't photographers at all but still have to create good photographic images in their work. For many years now I've been in the business of training dentists and other medical professionals in using digital photography in their practice. Yeah, I know, heck of a niche, right? But their need for precise, color-accurate, accessible photography is as demanding as anyone's, maybe more. They will often apologize to me for being such "amateurs" with their camera, but I assure them: they are professionals of a high order, indeed. Labels be damned, lets just pick up a few new skills.

So what is it about some of those bad habits, anyway? Never looking at the camera manual. Screw that; manuals are for pikers. We don't need no stinkin' manuals. Chimping. Are you kidding? That's why I bought a camera with a big honking screen. Centering the subject. Heck, I really don't pay much attention. Relying on a single memory card. Hey, that's why I paid big bucks for a high-speed, high-capacity one in the first place. Post too many photos. Well, ok, you got me on that one. 

I guess it all comes down to a simple metric: bad habits are bad, good habits are good, but lets not get all hung up on them. Creativity requires risk-taking and letting go. Labels are only self-indentifying, and anyway I'm a lot more interested in a good photograph than a good photographer. 

Although I like hanging out with both.

Plato's Travelogues, Part 5 ~

February was a great month. As is my usual habit, I spent my birthday month engaging in as much travel -- and its attendant dissipations -- as I can fit into a scant 28 days, 29 if I'm calendrically lucky. A predictably and delightfully rainy trip to northern California capped it off, and of course I'm left to reflect on the fact that my recent trips have all involved a good deal of rain. This, I'm convinced, is a good thing. It makes for better photographs.

But traveling also demands, of me at least, a healthy dose of delayed gratification. Here's what I mean: I rarely travel with my laptop computer, a generously proportioned 15-inch Macbook Pro. Much as I would otherwise like to, I don't upload any of my pictures until well after the event, and this can be any number of days away. Oh sure, I always do some on my iPhone too, and those I can see and mess with right away. That, too, is a good thing, but the ones I take with my camera -- more contemplative, perhaps -- benefit from a cooling-off period.

There are a couple of reasons for this, the first of which has troubled me since I began shooting with a digital camera.  As much as anyone, I love the excitement, the joy, of seeing a beautiful image unfold in the viewfinder and then tripping the shutter. A quick glance at the LCD screen might even reinforce that feeling. But the excitement felt at the moment of exposure is often not the same as that which happens when the image is opened up and sprawled, naked and cold, on the computer screen. One is a Eureka! moment, the other is a "what do I do now?" one. They are inherently disconnected. Better to give them the advantage of time and avoid being unnecessarily disappointed. I'm sure it's a holdover from my film days, which involved the lengthy process of gathering up the exposed rolls and spending a few days developing the negatives before I could even get to the task of printing them. The inherent delay, the forced separation, was integral to the process. Consciously or not, I took advantage of it.

But the other reason, which I've mentioned in passing a couple times before, has to do with re-discovering an old image, as if to see it for the first time all over again. If I go back over images I took weeks or even months before, those initial responses and expectations are long gone. I get to interpret an image I had previously overlooked and will feel excited about it again, but for entirely different reasons having little or nothing to do with the original intent. I find that supremely satisfying, but then, I often feel the same way about Portland coffee or a good IPA. Or rain.

So maybe it's just me.

Maximally minimal ~

I don't think I've ever enthusiastically embraced the notion that less is more. Not that I'm given to excess, mind you, at least not terribly often. I don't care for images that are cluttered or poorly arranged either, but the thought that empty space could somehow draw out of the viewer a range of emotions was, shall I say, unsupported. I just don't buy it.

And yet, and yet..........

I spent the better part of this week examining just those very minimalist photographs at the urging of a colleague back east, and could hardly draw my eyes away from them. Hengki Koentjoro, for example, is an Indonesian photographer whose work just blew me away (google him.) So I went through my usual gallery sites with a more refined minimalist eye, and came away impressed. A changed man? At my age, no. But one who came to some revelations about what we've been doing -- or should have been doing --all along.

And it only makes sense. After all, if you think about it, photography is more about what you leave out than what you put in. It's always been that way, we just have a hard time reflecting on it because we're usually in such a darn big hurry. When you bring the camera up to your eyes, you pretty much choke off 99% of the universe in the process. That's not a bad thing, of course; it's the very nature of the art. You just have to slow it down a notch.

So the task I set for myself was to go out and shoot with a maximalist heart and a minimalist eye. And no, it wasn't that I was going to purposely take "minimalist" photographs; such an objective will surely send you down the wrong path. I take pictures the way I take pictures, but I tried instead to be consciously aware of the elements around me that I was leaving out, and that, as Frost might say, has made all the difference.

But once again, mes amis, I apologetically leave you in a philosophical lurch. I have no great moral to impart, no important lesson to pass on. It's just me and an observation. I constantly take pictures, every day, everywhere, all the time. Usually I have a camera with me, but not always. After all, I think, the zen of photography is about the quiet spaces: seeing more, talking less.

Obviously haven't mastered that last part.

A Photography Contrarian ~

I decided a long time ago that I wanted to make my photographs bass-ackwards, and this bears some explanation, as you can imagine. I think it came about when I began to really embrace all things digital, because this made me see things differently from my old darkroom days. A lot differently. And since I'm enjoying myself immensely, I pay little heed to my erstwhile advisors and detractors who came upon this technology from a different angle. Take your own damn pictures! I'm having too much fun.

So let me take you back to those old darkroom days for a little perspective. Despite the usual dissipations attendant to a 20-something neophyte, I was a diligent and disciplined photography student. I took it seriously, and trained under some intensely talented teachers. The lesson brought home by them, ratified by the writings of the ever influential Ansel Adams, was the insistent karma of pre-visualization. Whether in the studio or in the field, each shot was thought out ahead of time (sometimes even diagrammed) to visualize the values, tones, and intent of the photo when realized in the darkroom. It was, as you can tell, pretty much all planned out, and ideally there were no unpleasant surprises. So I ask you: what fun is that?

Don't get me wrong, this was wonderful training and it provided a rich background from which to spring. And spring I did. I began, imperceptibly at first, to turn my meditative gaze outward, and I discovered that my camera and my eyes teamed up to find the things that interested them, and I pretty much went along for the thrill-ride. Maybe it's just in the way I use imaging technology, or maybe it's the tequila, but in either event there's a profound joy -- and, yes, the yang of a little discomfort -- in not knowing exactly where I would end up. Life is like that.

But if you open yourself up to a little post-visualizing, here's what you'll discover: a wealth of infinitely-layered images that open themselves up to you with new surprises every time you visit them. They will entertain you, they will delight, they will talk back with an atittude and they will be profoundly challenging. I think that's the whole point of art anyway, and it's not the sort of thing you can easily plan out ahead of time. Create your own river I say, and then go with the flow.

No telling what you might discover.

Zen and the Art Of Trying Not To Freeze Your Ass Off

Blame it on climate change. The recent winter shift in weather patterns up here has been pretty dramatic, and not in a warming direction, either. Quite the contrary; it's a mini-Ice Age, a snowpocalypse, and downright pleistocene if you ask me. Cold, in other words, and I didn't sign up for this, but here we are. We'll make the best of it, come hell (oh, I wish) or high water.

So with temperatures that never got above the teens, my friend Dan and I took the notion that it'd be a good idea to drive up into the Columbia Gorge and find some frozen waterfalls to photograph. We bravely sallied forth, bundled up like a couple of four-year-old's, with all the photo gear we could muster. Which, between the two of us, is considerable.

The waterfalls in the gorge are an incredible site any time of the year; they wax and wane with the seasons and the rainfall. I've photographed them many times, but never in a nearly-frozen state like this. It presented some interesting challenges. We hiked (or, rather, skated) on the lower trail up to Latourell Falls, picked our way carefully down to Bridal Veil falls, and then coasted into the parking lot at Multnomah Falls. Somewhere in the mix we found an inviting brew-pub in Hood River to thaw out. Ok, so it's not the Shackelton expedition. Give me a break.

But you know me, I have to make every excursion into something more personal, more intense, than just a cruise with a camera. I want to bring the camera up to my eye and and lose myself in the moment -- in this case, an extremely cold moment, but a spellbinding one nonetheless. The swirling mists at the bottom of the falls were instantly freezing on our lenses (and my glasses) so I know that I was sometimes shooting on faith alone. Therein lies the beauty of the motions.

And truth be told, I love shooting in gray and inclement conditions. Let me rephrase that: it's not that I love actually shooting in them -- I take my creature comforts seriously -- but I do truly love the photographic possibilities inherent in the gray skies, the rain and the fog. Add to that snow and ice now, too. A nice, warm day presents few challenges physically or photographically, and for all their discomforts, the frozen waterfalls quite literally took my breath away. It was a rare visual feast.

Shackelton would have been proud.

Un-Resolutions For A New Year ~

I find myself sitting at my desk, gazing mindlessly down at the meadow, here in these first few hours and days of the new year 2017. By tradition, one supposes, I should be pondering some resolutions and promises to keep in these upcoming months, but I'm not of that mind. Sorry to disappoint.  Another fine tradition is to register an optimism that the new year will accord us a more generous slice of luck and goodness than last year. But truth be told, acknowledging all its ups and downs, 2016 was, on balance, a pretty good year. So was 2015, and the year before that, and the one before that, too. I've lived a lot of the-year-before-thats, by the way, so I guess it'd be alright to remark on a few things I might like to do this year.

I fully expect that photography will continue to surprise and challenge me. If it has taught me anything, it's that when I stay in the moment, I'm best able to see light and beauty. I've struggled all my life as a photographer to achieve and appreciate its zen, and I'm getting closer.  A few more years maybe, or in another life, but I'm thoroughly enjoying the effort.

Oh, and sure, there are some new things (ok, toys) that I'd like this year too, but whether they help me improve my photography is questionable. But so what. New toys seldom do, but that's hardly the point. They keep us excited. For example, I really don't need another camera, but boy would I like that new mirrorless Fuji X-Pro2. I have the Xe2 and love it to death, and I do recognize the difference between need and want. But again, so what. On the other hand, I do expect to pick up a new printer this year and hand-print my photos. I'm getting more and more people asking to buy them, and I'd like to have complete quality-control over their production. Plus, just between you and me, I miss printing something fierce.

So here I am, still gazing down at the meadow, think wistful thoughts. I'd like to get out more with my friends and colleagues to wander about the city looking for the perfect photograph, or at least a darn good one. I'll try to connect more, and hope you'll reach out, too. It doesn't take much to talk me into a photowalk, and if misery loves company, well, so does happiness. Even more so.

And as I continue to shift my gaze from laptop to meadow, I notice a few snowflakes beginning to fall. Yes, we do get snow in Portland, and it reminds me that I do need to resolve to make an important purchase, and soon.

Snow tires.

Right Back Where We Started ~

Ok, so it's just a few days before Christmas and by rights I should be getting started on my shopping, but no. I figure I still have time, and besides, I've been thinking more about apps recently than presents or even sugar plum fairies, whatever the heck they are. That's just how I roll, particularly since I was introduced to a photo app this week by a like-minded friend. Truth is, of course, I have a ton of photo apps, but this one has me preoccupied...and for all the wrong reasons.

It's a new one called Darkr. And yes, that's how it's spelled. Darkr. Maybe it's just me, and maybe I'm a little skeptical. It's supposed to give the experience of actually using a "real" camera (as opposed to propping up the iPhone in front of your face?) and then spend a little time working with the resulting black & white negative, just like in the darkroom. Only, not.

As you can see, you get to look through the viewfinder of an actual (well, virtual) camera, in this case what looks like a Yashica rangefinder. But you could also choose a medium-format or even the viewscreen of a large format camera, image inverted and all. Plus, you control the exposure with actual shutter speeds and f/stops. Now don't get me wrong, I think this is all very cool and I can't say I'm not enjoying playing with it. But I have to wonder: who is this designed for, and dear god, why?

If it's aimed at us old guys -- you know, like we've been hanging 'round the general store, pining for the fjords -- then they missed the mark by about a mile. We've moved on, and happily so. We have good gear and iPhones, and if the mood strikes we still can haul out the old Deardorff and load up some Tri-X. But frankly, the mood doesn't strike all that often any more (chalk it up to age and statins, and yes, I'm talking about old cameras, not whatever the hell it is that you're thinking about.)

And if it's aimed at a whole new generation unfamiliar with that old stuff, well then, good luck with that. Some analog experiences can't be reproduced in a digital world, but that doesn't mean you can't try. And I'm betting this app was designed by just one of those very people, thus my skoosh of skepticism. We're just not thinking on the same wavelength.

So you know what I'm going to do someday? I'm going to hike up Half Dome, set up a big old Reis tripod, find a good position under the dark cloth, and make my best Ansel Adams landscape -- on an iPad. I think he, of all people, would see the humor in it and frankly, if he were still around, he would have beaten me to it. Old guys.

That's just how we roll.

The Future Is Hanging Around Here Someplace ~

Let's establish this right off the bat -- I'm the world's worst prognosticator. Nostradamus I'm not. All the cocky predictions I made in my youth, about anything, have all been wildly off. When I first encountered personal computers, for example, I figured they might be useful in helping me organize my baseball card collection. How could I have seen they'd replace my darkroom, and that I'd be perfectly cool with that? And I'm sure it's not just me: where are the flying cars we were promised? So when I opened my laptop the other day and read the exciting headline The Future Of Photography, well boy howdy, was I curious to find out or what?

Turns out that particular story was actually an ad for iPhone lenses (one of which I already own, it seems) so I was somewhat miffed at not being transported to a new dimension. But it got me interested in stirring the tea leaves, so I poured some more coffee and headed into the unknown: what, dear Google, is the future of photography? I was not disappointed.

Undreamed-of new products and techniques, software and hardware, were on display for me to digest, but I wasn't really interested in all that. What caught my eye were the articles about new ways of seeing, and different ways to reflect upon reality that photography may offer us. These are truly revolutionary ideas. We've gotten into the habit of allowing photographs to mean something real to us when in fact they are contrivances, the artifacts created when we use technology to make an image. As we move into the future (at light speed, by the way) the totality of photography's ever-changing syntax will be overwhelming, but I bet we'll hardly notice. Our acceptance of what is real will adapt right along with it.

James Burke, one of the world's most influential science historians, wrote in his 1978 book Connections that not only do we not know the future, we can't know the future. The progression of time is non-linear: things that happen now effect the things that will happen later, and the process is utterly random. But I take heart in this. Nothing is pre-ordained; no outcome is inevitable. That's exciting stuff, even -- especially -- for a photographer in the digital age. One of those articles suggested we'll make up new rules as we go along, but I say, Rules? We don't need no stinkin' rules. Do we?

So what the heck, here's my stab at it: with every new piece of software, every new app, every new device (my iPhone and I are staring at each other across the room) we'll take image-making across uncharted borders, and define reality anew at every step. The "camera" will become as quaint as the "telephone."  Everyone will be able to create an image and then adjust it to conform to their own very individual way of seeing the world. Most will be mundane, but some will blow our socks off. That's largely how it is even right now, so that's really not that daring of a prediction, I guess. But however photography morphs, it will always be startling and unexpected, challenging, troubling, eternally engaging. Its unfamiliarity will be warmly welcoming.

Oh, and robots. Robots will do our dishes.

Photographing Rocks ~

I look for solace in the small places: the space between paragraphs, the pause between notes. And in photographs. Not to put too melodramatic a spin on it, but it's where I've tried to keep my head these past few days. It's been hard, and when I've tried to look at my photos, and open them up to do work on them, my head just hasn't been there. And that, mes amis, makes so sense at all. Knock it off.

So I sat down to my blog today to engage my stream-of-consciousness hyperdrive, and the effort so far has had a palliative effect on my mood (bourbon, by the way, has been no help whatsoever and God knows I tried). But my mind keeps going back, over and over, to that mentor of my youth and life-long inspiration, Ansel Adams. And I think I know why.

There's something deeper in his story, something more compelling in his message than the lovely black & white photographs hanging in museums, and it has something important to teach us even now, maybe especially now. What keeps going through my head are the accusations by his contemporaries that as the world was falling apart, he was taking pictures of rocks. True, as World War II was erupting, he took some of his most beautiful photos, but he also immersed himself in a project of photographing the Japanese internment camps: the harsh conditions, the faces, the stories. He shows us that the twin pillars of his passionate causes -- environmentalism and social justice -- are inextricably and intimately bound up together, and he gave to them a powerful voice. He wasn't avoiding the great challenges of his day, he was meeting them head-on.

My anxieties, my inactivity, are entirely of my own doing. The recent events of this unparalleled election have disconnected me from the very thing that has always held my place in the universe. Yes, the world is both beautiful and ugly, and Adams understood that. The yin and yang of beauty and ugliness is the central fact of our lives. If you and I, like Adams, keep trying to find those beautiful places and giving voice to them, it'll help make sense of most everything else.

Rocks and all.

Changing the Color of My Eyes ~

Interesting weekend. I had given myself a personal challenge to go out and shoot in a way I had not done before, which is odd, because it was a way I used to shoot all the time. Bear with me; it's complicated. You see, ever since I started shooting with a digital camera -- going on close to 16 years now -- I had never set it up to shoot in black & white. With all the creative potential available in editing software, much more even now than back then, I began my long fascination with all things color. I could occasionally convert a color file to a black & white image, but it never started out that way. It just wasn't how I normally saw things.

And as I say, it was odd because for many, many years I was a dedicated black & white film shooter, wholly dedicated to all things Kodak and Edwal. The slow disappearance of high-silver papers and some of the great films coincided with the arrival of accessible digital photography, so the wheels were greased to speed my conversion. But again, oddly, a black & white ethos didn't come along for the ride. It was color, holding out her thumb and showing a little thigh, that I picked up right from the start. And she's only gotten better looking.

But the way modern digital cameras are designed nowadays is intriguing, and my little mirrorless is no exception. There were several ways to set it for a monochromatic jpeg, and I set mine to shoot as with a yellow filter, which is how I would most often go about shooting a fresh roll of film. I gamely set forth to wander the hills and valleys of southwest Portland, and landed up on the Lewis & Clark campus for a while, too. I was filled with doubts; this is, after all, the most colorful time of year in Portland. (Coward that I am, I kept my iPhone tucked into my front pocket, lest the color-panic became overwhelming. I make no pretense of photo-manliness). But I was able to force myself to look past all that and concentrate on contrasts and textures, forms and values. It brought back pleasant memories.

But truth be told, I missed the experience of black & white photography, the sickly sweet smell of the hypo, the slippery-slimey touch of Dektol on the fingers, the hypnotizing hum of the Thomas safelight. Or maybe I only remember the good parts: there's nothing more humbling than spending hours on a print only to see it irreparably stain in the toning bath.... ok, maybe I don't miss it all that much.

But nuts to all that. This was a fun project and I enjoyed the challenge. I'll do this more often; it can only help improve my skills and my mood. When you change the way you look at things, you can change what you see, and it's a beautiful world out there hiding behind that thin veneer of color. Besides, it's almost November, so it's pretty much going to be nothing but shades of gray around here anyway. It's why we drink so much coffee.

Black, preferably.

All The Glossy Photos ~

A few days ago we had sunshine -- possibly the last we'll see until spring thaw -- so out I was, getting a nice walk in, and happened to show up near one of those big-box book stores. Portland is rightly famous for great bookstores, but this was one of those chain outlets, which I'm not such a big fan of, but it had coffee. So there. Latte in hand, I wandered the extensive magazine rack, looking to see what photography magazines would catch my eye, and was both amazed and depressed at the ...sameness... of them all.

What I mean is simply this: they were largely indistinguishable from each other. They seemed mainly to be just vehicles for advertisers, anyway. I wanted to see photos that knocked my socks off, but there weren't a lot of those. Portraits, especially, are my passion, and I wanted to be dazzled, but most were pretty mundane -- even the nudes (which were mostly cheesecake anyway) and of course, the ubiquitous bikini poses. But alongside all those featureless photography magazines were several art magazines, and they just popped right out at me. One in particular was so lovely I purchased it on the spot: the October issue of New Realism: Contemporary Takes On The Figure.

The portraits that were made on canvas revealed all the qualities that were painfully missing in those photography pages: immediate, intimate, innovative, and oh so rich and gorgeous.  Some were designed to enchant the viewer, and some were meant to disturb, but all were meant to be important and vital. I found them inspiring. So my question is: what do they know that we don't?

Frankly, I'm not sure. There's a fearlessness that may be tied to not being tied to the senior and wedding market, but that only goes so far. The best work of my professional colleagues rivals any of those I saw in that artist's magazine. They are just as willing to innovate and push the envelope, they just don't show up in the popular press very often. And that's a shame.

I hope that the next generation of photographers is influenced by their work, and not by the bikini pictures and reviews of the latest camera bag in your typical photography magazine. I hope they also study those wonderful portraits on paper and canvas, and take from them some important lessons. I hope my colleagues find their way to share, inspire, and instruct. It's how I learned, and continue to.

And you just can't get that from a magazine.

How To Know What's What ~

I scour the interwebs every day, looking for great photographs and great photographers. So when I came across an online interview with Sebastião Salgado, I was just as delighted as could be. Salgado's work has been hugely influential to an entire generation of photographers, and although he shuns traditional descriptors like "photojournalist", his photographs, like those of W. Eugene Smith before him, are riveting in their storytelling. So when asked what his advice would be for young photographers today, his answer was likewise compelling:

"If you're young and have the time, go and study. Study anthropology, sociology, economy,  geopolitics. Study so that you're actually able to understand what you're photographing. What you can photograph and what you should photograph."

Why does this strike such a chord in me? Simple; it's the same advice given me by a remarkable teacher who mentored me and inspired much in my photography career. I would have loved, when I was a kid out of high school, to have gone off to college to study photography, but frankly I didn't know that such programs even existed. And as I look back now, I'm glad for that. In college I studied a lot of art and art history for sure, but my curriculum was pretty traditional. I had the usual round of the social and life sciences, history and math (and beer; it was the University of Wyoming, after all), and then graduate school where I did research in information theory. I kid you not.

I dropped out partway through my undergraduate program to initiate an apprenticeship in a commercial studio before continuing on a year later; my photography career and my education have thus been inextricably connected ever since.

So why am I telling you all this? Do I think it's made me a better photographer? Maybe, I hope so, but that's not the point. We need our storytellers, and storytelling requires a broad worldview. They can be powerful, human, truth-to-power; they can be Salgado. They can also, and just as importantly, be personal and intimate: a poem, a watercolor, my portrait of you. But they need to be informed.

Truth is, those voices in our head are worth listening to; they urge us to explore and create, to tell new stories and re-tell the old ones in new ways, to add our own voice to the chorus.

We're waiting to hear from you.



Brush Strokes In The Air ~

Last week I used the word "painterly" in describing a photo I had posted on Facebook. Normally, this would not be the cause of much excitement, but that's not how my life works. I got caught up in a conversation with a couple of my younger colleagues who were unfamiliar with that word, especially in the context of a photograph. Was it derogatory? complimentary? To help clarify, I assured them that it was, um... both. I'm helpful that way.

Coming of age in photography in the 1970's put me squarely in the Ansel Adams - Group f64 era. You've seen these photos, beautiful and powerful every one of them, largely black & white, and largely large. As in, big negatives, big prints. It was modernist at its core: crisp tonal values and a brilliant sharpness-to-infinity with an unstructured approach to natural composition and arrangement. There are some who thought that this was the ultimate expression of reality, but no. It wasn't. But what it did do was distinguish modern photography from it's soft-focus, pictorial origins. Those old photographs were painterly; the modern photograph is not.

But does this hold hard and true in the digital era? I have my doubts. I no longer have my medium  and large-format cameras, nor Tri-X film, nor my darkroom. I'm forced to look at the world with a different set of eyes, so to speak, and to adjust my vision accordingly, and digital technologies allow for a practically unlimited adjustment. This is photography's third big wave, one with an enormous potential for experimentation. And no, I'm not necessarily talking about being able to turn your photo into an oil painting at the push of a button (although that is sometimes so cool), but hopefully something that reaches far down inside of you. You know what I'm talking about.

So, No. I don't want my photographs to look like paintings; I didn't back was I was studying art, and I don't now. But things are different, and I want the freedom to express photography on my terms now. I find myself adding layer upon layer of my own vision, messing with color, with texture, with tonal values, with the voices in my head. Is it still a photograph? Yes. Is it...painterly? Sometimes, but so what. I'm an art-anarchist: follow those voices in your own head, and no one else's. They won't lead you astray.

Well, most of the time, anyway.

Keep Calm and Carry On ~

The new iPhone 7 was just recently announced, and being the incurable iPhone enthusiast that I am, I feel compelled to say a word or two on the subject. And here's why. Ever since that announcement, the interwebs have gone a little crazy, enlivening even my own personal Facebook account, with a lot of end-of-the-imaging-world hand wringing. Bear in mind most of my internet connections and Facebook friends are imaging professionals, many of them in the camera manufacturing biz. Among them there is much rending of garments and wailing and gnashing of teeth. I even saw a "this is a sad day, indeed" post from one of them.

Clearly my people need me.

To be honest, I can't get too worked up about it one way or the other. Their fear -- and there seems much of it to go around -- is that the high-quality camera in the new iPhone will spell doom to the point-and-shoot digital camera market. Well, duh. But let's be honest: that doom was foretold seven or so years ago when decent cameras were first put into smartphones, just no one's gotten around to taking it very seriously until now. And to their end, I say: so what? The great camera manufacturers are free to explore the realms of imaging technology unimaginable just a few years ago, unfettered by the need to stay competitive in the consumer point-and-shoot market. Frees up a lot of cash, folks. Tell me that's not a good thing.

I know you're dying to find out: am I going to get the new iPhone 7? Well, I don't know; probably, just not right away. I haven't even seen one yet; as of this writing only the smallest handful of earthlings have. But I have good equipment already. I have lovely Canon glass in the studio, and a mirrorless Fuji to get serious with outside. And I always...always... have my iPhone 6s with me the rest of the time, so I am, as they say, good to go.

So to my Facebook friend I will say that, yes, there are truly sad things one can say in photography these days, but they're not what you think. Say what you will about the late Mr. Jobs,  but when he reminded us that the best camera in the world is the one you have with you, that is what changed the world. Because the saddest phrase ever uttered, in the long history of our beloved medium, is this: ".... darn, I wish I had my camera."

Just breaks my heart.

The Zen of Over-Complicating ~

After taking some time off and trying (unsuccessfully) to accomplish things the past couple weeks, I'm brought back to my blog to make some observations about an online video I watched last week. The video was ominously titled 20 False Facts That Even Professionals Believe To Be True. I should be quick to point out that the "professionals" in question were photographers, just to be clear. But overlooking the obvious oxymoron (or maybe not; John Oliver often emphasizes "true facts", so there may be more than one kind of fact, in fact) the video was a revelation. Of sorts.

The video, hosted by one Tony Northrup in Modern Lens Magazine, covered a wide range of issues, such as a lens' "sweet spot" (as related to sharpness), the Reciprocal Rule, crop factors, f-stops, infinity focus, and a lot more. All busy, arcane, complicated minutia...and I loved every minute of it. I am, of course, an unrepentant gear-head, and a bit of a math geek, albeit somewhat clumsy at it.  There was a time, back in my old studio days before the ubiquity of automation, where these skills were useful, even necessary.

Speaking for myself, however, this commotion can be a problem. The mesmerizing complexity of technology, sweet siren song though it is, is often an obstacle to making a beautiful photograph. Creativity requires simplicity; photography often demands complexity. Ours is a technical field, after all; it's not canvas-and-brush. We are forced to be cognizant of -- and familiar with -- a lens' sweet-spot, and crop factors, and infinity focus. And much, much more. It's tough to wean ourselves away from it.

I'm trying to be comfortable with the largeness of less, and I think I'm getting away with it. I love my iPhone. I love my mirrorless Fuji. I love the aperature-preferred setting. I love simple, accessible software. I love making my eyes do the work. I love that I'm starting to feel my way into a photograph more than working my way into it. Most of all, I love that it's a process and that it's something I can get better at.

While my worldview has expanded to include most of the universe, my vision is honing down to a sweet-spot of its own: this moment, this place, this light.

And that's a fact.

Mist and Sand ~

Is it the mists of time? the sands of time? One suggests a lack of clarity as we look back; the other, of unstoppable passage. Either one will play havoc on a camera, but they also do a number on our minds. It's like our own personal Uncertainty Principle: if we dig deeply into one, we know less about the other.

I'm brought to this odd rambling by the news of my mother's passing in the early hours this morning. Though not unexpected (she was near 93, bless her heart) it was nonetheless a tearful reunion with my memories. And a precious few old pictures. I heard a talk by a philosopher a while back who suggested that we don't really remember the past, but instead we recall our memories of the past, and that each new recollection builds upon many layers of increasing imperfection. So of course I think of photographs.

There are a handful of photos from my mother's childhood, like the one above (she's the cutie on the right). Someone in the family -- an eccentric uncle, perhaps -- must have had a folding Kodak or something because there are a few lovely old images. There's even a photo of my grandmother and her brothers taken shortly after their arrival here from Mexico, probably around 1916 or so. But of my father's family, there are almost none, so the stories of their lives in the old Pacific Northwest, and even earlier in Canada, have no snapshots to freshen recollections. Sad indeed, but the many pictures I've taken over the years of both mom and dad will hopefully keep their memories alive for my granddaughter, and her kids, and even theirs.

My most prized possessions on this earth are the photo albums of my two children; if the house were to catch fire I'd rescue those and little else.  And now with grandchildren, that drive to preserve those moments is more compelling than ever. Memories are imperfect indeed, mine probably more than most. If I can only remember my memories of the past, then I want photographic evidence. I will never forget my mother's face; I have it right here in front of me for all time.

But philosophers be damned. Time does go on, of course; we watch our children grow and our parents die as we ourselves walk ever onward. Somewhere along the way is that place we want to pause for a while and make whatever memories we can, pleasant or not, before it gets too late.

While we're there, let's take some pictures.

Extraordinarily Ordinary ~

My guru Richard recently complimented me on one of my photographs. In particular, he noted the way that I made something quite ordinary look much more dramatic than what might have been suggested at first glance. But it made me think, and what I thought was, well, this is probably true for nearly all photography, no? I mean, sure, we've seen images of extraordinary events and extraordinary people, but when we take up our cameras and sally forth, that's not what we're looking for. If it was, we'd be missing the point.

It's an extraordinary experience, photography. There's nothing normal, nothing natural, about taking a photograph. First of all, there's that whole act of seeing, of being totally in the moment, observing that one point and eliminating all else, fixing it in your mind, and then -- only then -- performing the very unnatural act of bringing a camera to your eye. It's random, it can be anything: raindrops on a flower, a beautiful smile, a busy street -- or maybe just the sunlight streaming in through my kitchen window. Anyway, I think all the arts must be like this; putting paint on canvas or typing words on paper are efforts every bit as extraordinary and unnatural.

We train ourselves to believe otherwise, but really, the challenge is to avoid becoming complacent, and that's easier said than done. Me, I spend nearly all my waking moments looking around me, seeing those perfect and deliciously imperfect moments, taking little mental photographs. And no, it won't drive you to drink, not that there's anything wrong with that, but you do end up spending every waking moment adjusting your vision.

 So when I'm walking around in the rain with my camera, or even shooting a job in the studio, I may want the motions to be smooth and seamless, but I also want to lose my balance just a little bit. I see things better that way.