9.01.2012

Portrait of a business man.


I was in New York to shoot on the floor of a specialty printing company when the art director for the project asked me to also include a portrait of the company's owner.  I went into his office which was filled with wonderful art. Paintings, lithographs, antique clocks and furniture. Photographs from the late 1800's and so much more.

He was at his desk when I walked in and you could tell that it was a spot in which he was very comfortable. The perfect spot for him.  The art director wanted to do the classic shot where the business man sits on the front edge of his desk, looking powerful so we did that first. It was awkward and unbalanced for all of us. When I asked him to sit back down and do some work while I reconfigured my one light it was as though a weight fell from his shoulders and mine.

I liked his direct and assured expression so that's what I set out to capture. It was one of those sessions when you get just what you need in twelve frames and then you pack and get the hell out.

This was shot on a Hasselblad camera with the classic 150mm f4 Planar lens using Tri-X 400 film.  Camera on a tripod and light provided my one Profoto 300 w/s second monolight bounced into an old, worn, yellowed umbrella. Printed on Seagull Portrait DW paper.

To my mind this could have been taken any time in the last 50 years.  And I like that.

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