Going Through the Archives

There is a major problem that all photographers must face.

The archives.

When working in a media like photography, there is so much work that is created and accumulated that archiving can be a major and daunting task. I have binders full of negatives, hard drives full of scans, folders full of digital files and piles of prints. I think the storing and management systems that I've put into place work fairly well. If I want to find a certain photograph, it wouldn't take too long to track it down. 

I've begun to realize that the mere storage of photographs is not the major problem. Storage is systematic. Once a system implemented, maintenance does not take much work. The REAL problem seems to be that entire bodies of work are perfectly archived and organized and then never seen again.

Over the past month or so I've staring pouring through my work from the last few years. It has truly been an amazing experience. Other than when working on a project like my Portrait of San Francisco book (there are a few copies left by the way) it is extremely rare that I actually look at my own work. I put a lot into it. I really do WORK at my photography and learning more and more about mastering the craft. Unfortunately, after exposure, development, scanning, Lightroom, archiving and printing, most photographs just get filed away, never to be seen again.

I have decided to make a change.

I have been spening time rediscovering my own work and putting together a series of portfolios; some small, some large. In the coming weeks there will be some major changes to the way my social media pages funtion. I am very excited to be able to share these completed portfolios and will be doing so in (hopefully) a very systematic way. These portfolios are very broad In their subject matter but still very linked In their underlying theme and meaning.

In them, I have also discovered something new and different in my photographs that I am not used to.

I actually like them!

Stay tuned for big updates soon to come! 

The Difficulty in Projects

I have stumbled across a large difficulty in editing together a body of work that I have been absorbed with for some period of time.  Over the months of returning to the same subject to photograph over and over again the scene has remained unchanged yet my photographs have greatly varied moods from each subsequent visit.  Perhaps that is what I love about this location; it evokes such a mix of responses from me; part of the challenge has been to show it all.

This leaves the question of whether or not is it a detriment to the project to have the photographs so varied.  At first glance, it may seem slightly disjointed; as though I was not sure what I was trying to express.  In truth, this is not the case.  The struggle has been to show immensity as well as calm; to show excitement and drama as well as peace. 

After pondering this dilemma for a small stretch of time, I believe that it is not, in fact, harmful to the body of work for it to be varied.  It does provide and additional challenge though.  Now the burden will rest on pairing this collection of photographs with proper written content.  Through both the written word and the photographs, the viewer will gain a much greater understanding than if a single aspect were presented.  Beyond that, by presenting the separate and contradictory moods of a subject, the viewing experience will be improved and not hampered.

As may be noticed, I am not quite ready to discuss the particular location or show any of the work.  It will come soon.  The photographing may be nearing completion but the work of finishing and editing has just begun.

Feeling Like Barnack

Yesterday morning I went out to the Golden Gate Bridge slightly before dawn.  In my original vision, I planned on photographing with my medium format set up for the long exposure portion of the morning; switching to the Leica once the sun was up.  Once I arrived, I realized that I did not really feel up to the task of carrying my whole Bronica kit (camera body, 4 lenses, extra film back, loads of film, filters etc).  I like the slowness of the process as it helps to refine the previsualization of the photograph.  Really, it is the weight of all of that gear.  When I got home, I weighed my camera bags.  The Bronica and all of those gigantic Nikkor lenses tips the scales at 15lbs while my M3 with 3 lenses (plus filters and film etc) comes in at 4lbs (2 of which being the camera and 50).  15lbs may not sounds like all that much but if it is thrown over the shoulder for a morning it can be quite tiring.  Beyond that it is extremely cumbersome.

This lead me to abandon the medium format track for the morning and just use the Leica on a tripod for my early morning, long exposure work.  I had gone with a few photographs in mind and it was quite easy to just walk to the spots, set up the camera, open the lens and wait.  An additional benefit I found was that having depth of field markings on the lens is much more helpful than having a depth of field preview at 5am when it is still dark.  Even when photographing at narrow apertures, the frame was bright and clear and I knew that everything from just under a meter to infinity will be in focus.  If I had the Bronica, I would have had to guess the focus.  I could see where the center of sharp focus would be but not the range of depth that I would have. 

The Leica just worked better.

This all led me to feel a further kinship to Oscar Barnack (creator of the Leica).  He found his view camera to be cumbersome and difficult to carry (he had a bad back and asthma).  The desire to photograph with a smaller device was what led to his creation of a camera that used the newly available cine film; first for himself, then for Leitz Optics who was his employer.

Thank you Dr. Barnack.  Your development of the Leitz Camera (or Leica) changed the face of photography 100 years ago.  It also made my morning a little easier yesterday.

On Contemplating Photographs

Photographs are meant to be contemplated. One cannot fully understand or appreciate a photograph at a mere moment's glance; it must be examined, it must build in the mind, it must have time to touch the soul.

 

When first approaching a photograph, the viewer will notice the main subject matter first (be it a person or an object). The eye will slowly move around the photograph and begin to pick out all of the supporting details. The details of a photograph will vary in importance depending on the mode that the print will be used for. In photojournalism, the subject and details are of paramount importance, in an abstract photograph, the object photographed is secondary to the composition and mood (to be discussed later). In essence, this first stage establishes what the photograph is. Can this be determined? Is it a portrait? Is it a mountain? Is it a street scene?

 

After the initial elements of the photograph are taken in by the viewer, a deeper understanding begins to form; the forms and composition begin to shine through and the viewer begins to notice how the photographer organized the photograph. At this stage, the viewer begins to contemplate not just the incidentals of the photograph but the soul of the photographer.

 

As Edward Weston stated, “Composition is the strongest form of seeing.” Through the arrangement of forms, the organization of patterns, the direction of lines and the contrast between light and dark, the photographer adds emotion and interpretation to the scene or subject that is photographed. In a cursory glance at a photograph, all of this is lost. There must be time to build the impressions of formal and compositional relationships within a photograph. By organizing the seeming chaos of life into an ordered scene, the photographer expresses not just what he saw but what he felt about the scene.

 

What the photographer felt about a scene is refined further in the tonal relationships between the forms of the photograph. Why did the photographer choose this moment and this composition to show, not just what they saw, but what they felt about the subject photographed? Was the scene calming or serene? Was it inspiring and majestic? Was it intense and chaotic? These different moods are drawn out in the tonality of the print (this is especially true in black and white).

 

This point about tonality is truly where the craft of photography becomes most evident. The artistic inspiration is what inspired the photographer by what was seen and to compose the photograph in the most effective frame. The craft of the photographer is knowing how to express the scene to effectively convey the emotional response to it. This decision is best made at the moment of making the photograph and must be carried out in the darkroom. If the photographer does not know how to translate the scene in front of the lens into a proper tonal relationship to demonstrate what was seen and felt the photograph will be nothing but a snapshot.

 

To fully reach this level of appreciation of and connection with a photograph, the viewer must be willing to invest the time. To understand a photograph, it must be contemplated; it must be seen with both the intellect and the soul and not just looked at. By fully examining a photograph as an intentional work of art, the viewer will be able to reach a higher level of understanding about both what was photographed as well as the person who made the photograph. A quick, cursory glance will not yield the same results.

 

Unfortunately, the prominence of posting photography online has deteriorated these higher levels of understanding. In an online gallery, there may be hundreds of pictures; each picture may be examined for a few seconds and then the viewer moves on to the next. Through this approach, the viewer notices what is in the picture (a tree, a person, a mountain etc) as well as any immediate emotional response. It should be noted that this response is not of the deeper emotions that are cultivated through time (such as love) but it is more akin to shock. Love is an emotion that grows over the course of time. The initial flutterings of the heart grow through acts of the intellect and the will, through further appreciation of that which is loved. On the other hand, the shock of a short term viewing seems to have a large initial impact but then fades and is forgotten as the viewer moves on.

 

What then is to be done? There are two main solutions for solving this problem and being able to return to a full appreciation of the photograph: books and galleries. Both of these avenues of photographic viewing have their strengths and weaknesses. Viewing photographs in a gellery is the more important while building a photographic library is the more common.

 

The gallery is the highest form of photographic collection and viewing. The first main reason for this is that upon entering a gallery, the viewer has removed themselves from all distraction or outside influence. There is no chance of being distracted by an e-mail popping up on the computer, there will be no calls from another room, there is no phone to answer; from the moment the viewer entered the door, the only task at hand is the appreciation of photographs. This change in setting adds to the change in mindset to make one open to truly experiencing and contemplating photographs.

 

Possibly the more important reason to visit a gallery besides just the change of space is that the print is the true medium of photography. Whether it is one a plate, created in a darkroom or printed from a digital file, photography, as an art form, is meant to be a physical print. Even beyond this idea that the nature of photography is most fully expressed through a print, there is also the added beauty of a print that cannot be reproduced in any other form. No matter how excellent a reproduction is made, an actual darkroom print that Ansel Adams made by hand is infinitely more beautiful and inspiring than one on a computer screen (and even in a book).

 

The print shows the true hand of the photographer. The object hanging on the wall was made by the photographer. It is not a reproduction. It is not a facsimile of the photographer's work. This is how they themselves created the photograph.

 

It is interesting how obvious this is within the realm of the visual arts in general while it has fallen away in photography. As an example, is it better to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre or to see a photograph of it online? The online gallery shows the same picture, the colors are perfectly corrected, it is very high resolution so the viewer can actually look closer than they could in the museum. Still there is something lacking. It may look like the Mona Lisa but it is not the Mona Lisa. There is a value in seeing the actual piece of art. Even beyond that, one could find a beautiful rendering of the Sistine Chapel online. In this example, it is definitely easier to get a close look at all of the detail online. That being said, the painting is not about the brush strokes. By entering into the church and putting oneself right underneath the painting, a person can reach a much greater understanding and appreciation of the painting. It needs to be seen in its proper setting to form the true emotional bond. The same is true of a photograph. You have not seen the work of Ansel Adams (to return to the previous example) until you have stood in front of the prints he made with his own hands.

 

While the gallery may be the best opportunity to view photography in its true form, there are a few drawbacks. These can mainly be summed up as time and opportunity. In short, there may not be frequent chances for every individual interested in photography to frequent galleries. The answer to this is the building up of a personal photography library.

 

Through ownership of a physical photograph (whether in the form of a print or a book) a deeper appreciation will build. This is true for a few different reasons. First of all, the atmosphere in which printed work is viewed is more conducive to contemplation than a computer screen. The change of space from where work is done (in front of the computer) to where relaxation is done (the living room, a couch, a favored chair etc) helps put the mind at ease. When looking through a collection of photographs, there is not a task that needs to be accomplished. The goal is not to get all the way through the collection so much as it is to appreciate the photographs. Through this approach, the viewer can look at a photograph, allow the mind to wander and connect to other things, turn the page, turn back and all around enjoy the experience.

 

There is a secondary reason for the benefit of a personal collection of photography books. The more a photograph is viewed, the more appreciation and layers of meaning can be added. Depending on the happenings of life and the spiritual or emotional state of the viewer, different photographs will have more or less impact at different points in time. By having constant access to the collection of photographs, the viewer will continue to add depth and meaning to the work as their perspective changes. The different emotional responses will help draw out the meaning that the photographer was trying to convey as well as connect the viewer to specific photographs.

 

The final point worth noting is that through ownership of a collection of books (as well as prints or plates etc) is that the photo enthusiast will have constant access to photographic inspiration. If one has a shelf full of photography books, it is not necessary to wait for the next exhibition to be near; there are always works on hand.

Film as the True Medium of Photography

      The decision to use film is not purely based on any aesthetic or tangible quality (though anything along these lines does add to the decision).  Rather, it it is based on the notion that film is the true medium through which the art and craft of photography is expressed.  A similar sentiment may be made in regard to painting. Though many artistically excellent pieces of work are made using digital means that resemble paintings (down to paint like textures and expressive or graphic brush plug ins) the end result is not a painting.  It is a facsimile of a painting.  This is not in any way meant to say that those using digital media are not excellent artists; they are just not painters.  To be a painter, one must use paint.  To be a photographer, one must use photosensitive materials that exist outside of the devise used to create them.

         

 

It's Not Too Late!

I was watching a video on the Leica Monochrom the other day and was struck by the presentation.  No, I am not going to sell my M6 (and my car) in order to buy a digital camera.  Actually, I didn't make it through more than 2 minutes of the video before I got annoyed with the presenter and had to turn it off.

In the opening, the reviewer is shown sitting and discussing the old days when he was new to photography (probably in the 80s).  He was sitting in an alleyway somewhere and discussed how much fun the old days were; he had that nostalgic twinkle in his eye when he reminisced about using a manual camera loaded with Porta.  Man, those days were fun.  Unfortunately, he said, now those days are over.  Is there a way to recapture the fun that could be had with photography?

What?

Why are those days over?  The whole introduction seemed quite silly to me.  Maybe I'm missing something but if you thought shooting film was more fun than shooting digital why don't you buy a roll of film?  It really is that easy.  You don't have to shoot digital.  Just because it is new does not mean that it's better or even mandatory to use.  The argument that, "Well, now we have to use digital cameras because they are the newer more modern thing.  We can't use film anymore just because digital cameras exist" is such silliness.  Believe it or not, you can in fact still use film.  Even if you are a professional photographer, you can shoot film.  With the availability of negative scanners (or regular scanners if you are awesome and print in the darkroom) it is even possible to post photographs online!  Wow!  Who knew?

I would like to present two retorts to the arguments against film.  The main "fact" that people point out is that film is more expensive.  There are two main points I would like to bring up: shoot less and no it isn't.

Why is it better to take a million pictures?  A few weeks back I was out at the coast photographing.  After a few hours, I had finished two rolls of film a decided to call it a day.  When I was walking up, I saw another photographer and talked to him for a few minutes.  He had a big plastic Canon POS (or whatever they are called) and was surprised that I could take so few pictures.  He said that he often takes 1000 pictures in a morning at the beach.  I was floored.  How can you possibly take that many pictures and still care about any of them?  Part of the degradation of the art of photography is related to this ability to shoot near infinitely without having to think about what you are doing.  The less you have to focus on what you are doing, the less you will improve.  Art is inspiration plus craft.  It takes work to improve not just more of the same.

Also, the argument that digital is better because it takes so long to develop negatives whereas you can just upload your pictures right from the camera to the computer is nonsense.  I bet I could develop my film faster than  it would take to upload a full memory card from camera to computer.

Shooting film is actually cheaper than shooting digital.  Sounds like craziness right?  The problem with how the argument is usually presented is that it seems most people only think about the cost of film vs megapixels.  Sure it costs more to take a photographic on real photographic materials rather than making an image on a computer.  Is that really the only cost associated with photography?  I think the bigger issue at hand is the camera body itself.  It seems like it's harder and harder to find a decent camera for under $1000.  Even the mirrorless cameras are getting up to that range.  Will a new, $1200 Olympus OMD outlast a $100 OM1?  No.  Digital cameras are like computers.  Even the best of new digital cameras will be outdated in a year and you will need to purchase another.  On the other hand, a film camera is never outdated.  In fact, they are constantly updated.  When Kodak released it's fantastic new T-Max a few years ago, every 35mm camera ever made received a free firmware update!  My Exakta VX from the late 50s now takes sharper, higher resolution photographs than ever before.

As another example, the Leica Monochrom looks like a fantastic camera.  It has all the fun of an old manual film camera but with the "convenience" of digital.  There is a slight drawback though.  It costs $8,000.  My M6 set me back about $1,000 (which was a huge chunk of change for me but my motto is "Buy film, not food").  That means that the Monochrom because cheaper only after I have spent $7,000 on film.  Since I buy 100ft of T-Max 400 at a time and roll it myself, each roll costs something to the tune of $3.75.  I would have to shoot 1800 rolls of film before I am losing money on it.

Is there a way to rekindle to fun of shooting film?  Can we still experience the simple pleasure of switching rolls of film part of the way through a day of strolling around with a camera?  Could it be possible in this modern world of ours to spend more time on the craft of photography and less time on the computer?  Is there a simple way to do most of the work in camera and less in post production?  Is it possible to slow down, take total control, care more about each shot and master the craft of photography?

YES!

Buy a dang roll of film!