Saturday, September 7, 2013

Intimacy in Photography

The above image was taken years ago in Lermoos, Austria.  It's an image that works well in a small size, maybe 8"x8" at the largest, but totally falls apart larger.  I have long had the theory that images seek their own size.  Some work well at a variety of sizes but most have an ideal size at which they work best.

I recently came across a wonderful article by photographer David Kachel called "Ban the Bedsheets-Size Matters" where he discusses the relationship between the viewer and the print and how size matters.  There is an intimacy that exists when a fine print is viewed up close and personal.

I make work prints before I do a final print.  Frequently these work prints are 6x6 or 6x9.  While I may be satisfied when I make them larger, I am frequently struck with how magic they are in the smaller sizes.

Just some food for thought.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Virtues of Ambiguity

Some images are too easy.  Once you have seen them you have discovered all there is to see.  This may be OK in that the image brings you joy every time you look at it.  However, I have discovered that I like images that I don't quite understand.  Every time I look at them they present an opportunity for reinterpretation.  They are not always pretty.

What has amazed me is that some of the simplest images sometime retain this quality for me.  Good examples would be Edward Weston's "Shell #1" and "Pepper #30."  No two images could be simpler, yet for me, they are images that hold infinite fascination.

In the end, it's a personal journey.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Japanese Paper

 Japanese Paper

One of the great joys of digital printing is the choices of papers that we currently have.

I frequently get asked about the papers I use for printing. I tell folks what they want to know but also tell them that if they are satisfied with what they are currently using they should not change.  The great paper chase may never end.

That said, I recently came across a paper called Niyodo, made in Japan, which is wonderful for the right images.  I get it from Hiromi in California.  The paper was recommended to me by my good friend and fabulous photographer, Ellen Martin.

The image above was printed on the Niyodo paper. I chose to show a picture of it hanging on the wall because there is no good way to show the delicacy of this paper in a straight copy.  I tore the  edges and mounted it to the substrate with rice paste.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Visual Literacy and Photographic Education

Ansel Adams had it partially right when he describe the process of "pre-visualization."  Ansel posited that we should pre-visualize the image because that would lead to technical decisions regarding exposure of the film and development of the negative.  It was sort of a backward process whereby we are supposed to understand where we were going so that we can implement a workflow that will get us there.

I've come to realize that we may be teaching photography backwards.  We do a great job of teaching our students "how" to do something technically but we do a terrible job of teaching them "why."  By this, I mean that great imagery is not the result of editing, it is the result of being able to look at a "raw" image" and see its potential and what needs to be done to it to realize that potential. And then having the technical skills and tools to implement those decisions.

The above set of images show the original and the final.  Knowing how to dodge, burn, clone, adjust contrast, etc. will not get to the final image unless you have a concept of what the image needs in order to make the visual statement you wish to make.  (I'm setting aside luck!)

Others are free to make different decisions about the image but the things that I saw were the potential of the sky, the texture of the tree, the highlight on the rocks, and the separation in the distant mountains.

I spent a lot of time working on the separation of the clouds in the sky.  It was extremely important that the tree be sharp and have really good contrast.  Since sharpening can sometimes create halos around an object, I spent hours cloning out the halos around the limbs of the tree.  The highlights on the rocks was enhanced to lead the viewer into the image and up to the tree.  And the near foreground and the right and left edges were burned (darkened) slightly to keep the eye in the frame.  The distant mountains were contrast and brightness adjusted until they gave a sense of distance but were but not competing with the foreground.

This is a long way of saying that all the Photoshop skills and great equipment will not create visually interesting images.  Visual literacy and understanding the potential of an image may.

Friday, May 10, 2013


Every now and then the creativity fairy visits you.  I thought someone might find interesting the evolution of one of my most surreal images

One day at the Torpedo Factory I had too much time on my hands.  I had an opportunity to shoot at the DC Court of Appeals building that was being renovated.  I was intrigued by a series of receding doorways.
Upon opening the file, I discovered how dull, boring, and uninteresting an image can be.

At this point it became a challenge.  And, I had time on my hands.

One of the foremost photographers dealing in surrealism in Jerry Uelsmann.  I said to myself, "what would Jerry do?"  I thought the first doorway would make a good frame.

I thought Jerry might also put a boulder behind it since the first doorway provided a great frame.  To wit:

This worked pretty well but if the boulder was going to be sepia, the glass above the door had to be approximately the same color to give the illusion that the boulder was behind the door.

I then asked myself what else Jerry might do?  Stupidly, I said he'd add an eye.

I say stupidly because isolating the eye was one of the hardest jobs I have ever done.  Trust me, if you see an eye in another of my pictures, it will probably be this one.

Never content to leave well enough alone, I noticed the cord dropping down out of the ceiling.  One of my favorite photographers is Christopher James.  Christopher had a "Red Line" series in which he introduced a red line in each of the images. So I painted the cord red as an homage to Christopher.

Several of my fellow artists at the Torpedo Factory Art Center (Susan Makara and Christine Parson) commented about Picasso's "blue" period and that the eye would look better green.

Thus I arrived at the final image seen below.  I'm not sure I deserve a lot of credit for the image.  It's been stable for several years but I consider it a work-in-progress.  As it is right now it is an homage to Jerry Uelsmann, Christopher James, Picasso, Susan Makara,.and Christine Parson.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Low Tech

 Waiting for the Rain to End, not Godot....

Here I go again.  I think I'm turning into an old curmudgeon!  Maybe I already have already and am just now recognizing it.

The above picture was taken with my iphone while waiting for the rain to stop.  It's more of a statement about how little I had to occupy my time than it says about my artistic vision!  I guess I could have named it "Homage to Samuel Becket" and let folks wonder what the hell I was talking about.

Years ago when the Diana, since replaced by the Holga camera came out, there developed a bit of a cult following.  These were cheap plastic cameras with terrible lenses, that scratched the film as it was transported through the camera, and leaked light so that flair showed up on the film.  The equipment is not the problem.  I've seen a lot of great work done with this kind of equipment.  As an example of how it should be done I would refer you to the work of my good friend Craig Sterling.  Check out his gallery "New Work."  Most of the images are done with a Holga or an iphone.

It seemed that the art world was willing to embrace the results without regard to whether or not the images were good.  Almost everyone working with a Diana/Holga was declared a "fine art" photographer and held in some sort of awe.  Most of the work was garbage and was a waste of film.

The emperor had no clothes but a lot of the folks who should have spoken up didn't.

I see a version of this happening today with many applications for smart phones.  If it's fuzzy, out-of-focus, off-color, with ragged edges it must be fine art. Maybe the problem is not with the application but rather what most people think of when they think of "fine art" photography.

Mike and Doug Starn proved years ago that a photographic image didn't have to be sharp and pristine to be great art.  Their work often looked like it was held together with chewing gum and bailing wire.  However, they had great vision that was expressed through appropriate craft.  Their works are amazing and need to be experienced "in-the-flesh" so to speak.  No publication does them justice.

Once again we have craft, a result of the application, substituting for vision.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


Vine, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Strange title but I have come to a bit of a semi-epiphany over the recent past.  I've always known that there were photographers who loved the process of photography.  I think many of us love the environment created in the darkroom and are reluctant to give it up no matter how good the digital tools are today.  I would never tell someone who loves the darkroom and/or film to give it up.  The chemical darkroom and the digital darkroom are different processes, media, and skills.

That said,  most folks who do the darkroom work describe the different look and feel that result from their process as being the reason they choose to go that route.  Film has grain, digital is smoother, etc. (Some use that as an excuse but that's a topic for another blog entry.)

In the recent past I came in contact with a very sophisticated photographer who goes through an extremely difficult, time-consuming, and heavy equipment oriented process to create an image that could be easily taken with modern equipment in a relatively short time by an amateur.  I realized that what he really loved was the process.  The image was really only an excuse to execute/figure out the process and was only marginally the object of the effort.

I wanted to ask what qualities the process brought to the final image to make him go through this extremely difficult process. I didn't get the chance to ask.

This discussion was part of a panel composed of ten photographers.  The other nine of us started the discussion of their images with what they were trying to achieve in the image.  The visual statement drove them to a particular process or equipment.  I'm not saying that this is right or wrong but it gave me something to think about.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Integrity of Craft

I wasn't really sure what to title this rant, but there are things I want to say.

As a photographer I think I have the right to reinterpret my negatives or files.   I have an obligation to the people who may purchase my prints to use the highest quality materials available to me.  When I sign one of my prints my reputation both as a photographer and a craftsman are on the line.  Maybe that's one of the reasons that I print all my own work.

When I make a print I always try to make it the best of which I am capable.  That doesn't change with a reinterpretation of the image.

I always tell people who are considering one of my images that while I can always reprint an image, there is no guarantee it will look identical, even if I use the same file.  Inks change, paper change, printers change over time.  Also, my opinion of what the picture should look like may change.

The above images are good examples of what I am taking about.  In the one on the left the skin is slightly lighter and there is a rock surface on the shoulder.  In the image on the right rock surface slightly darker and the shoulder is bare.  I like both images and I think both are within the bounds of artistic expression.

Over the last several years I've come in contact with incidents which call into question "artistic integrity" as it relates to craft.  In one case a fine art photographer that I know, when informed that his prints were off-color because he had used exhausted bleach and fix during the development of his prints and they would fade, said he couldn't care less.

Several years ago, the American Art Museum had a retrospective of Ansel Adams work.  One of the prints had been mistakenly left in the selenium toner so long that it was eggplant purple.  It should never have left the darkroom.

While visiting in Carmel, Ca., I went into one of the highest of the high-end photography galleries in the country.  There was a magnificent photograph of Ansel's "Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite" on the wall.  After I had made multiple visits over several days to view it, one of the employees asked me if I would like to see "the other" print they had of that image.  She went in the back room and brought out a print that should never have gotten out of Ansel's darkroom.  It was severely overprinted and had blocked shadows and grey highlights.  The print had none of the luminosity that the one hanging on the wall had.  Her comment, "naturally we don't show them together."

More recently, I've seen a print by a very famous 20th century photographer that had been poorly spotted and improperly washed and was showing chemical stains which rendered it worthless as a collectable print.

I also saw a print by this same photographer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington that was printed so dark it should never have been let out of his darkroom.

There are things that I see in my images that I'm pretty sure the public will never notice but I know they are there.  Until they are addressed to my satisfaction they might as well have neon signs pointing them out.  They never disappear; they only get worse.

I guess this is a long way of saying that great art requires great craftsmanship. Without both, neither exists.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Photograph vs The Painting

Snag, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

While I claim to be no expert on the state of painting in the world today, I have sort of come to the conclusion that most painters don't paint what a lot of photographers photograph.  The epiphany came to me while I was looking at one of my favorite websites, americansuburbx.  Admittedly there is a lot of filtering going on in that the webmaster is showing what he wants to show.  However, in looking at the vast offering of photographic images, I'm struck about how many seem to be "photographic" images that would never be painted.

I wonder why this is?  Are photographers more likely to explore the world around them?  Is the relatively inexpensive and less time-consuming nature of our medium an invitation to explore aspects of our environment that would not attract those working in another medium that is more time-consuming?

I certainly know that working with a digital camera is different than working with a view camera.  The differences are not a case of better vs worse but rather in how we approach the subject matter and, maybe more importantly, what/how we choose to photograph.  Digital frees us to explore a subject in a manner that we often felt reluctant to do in film.  In short, digital is relatively cheap, we can take many pictures of a subject, and choose what works.

As an aside, the waste basket and knowing how to use it effectively, is probably the best piece of equipment any photographer, regardless of medium, can own.  Often the difference between a good photographer and a great one is merely what one chooses to show, not what one takes.

One thing I know for certain, you cannot be afraid of failure, regardless of your medium.  The safe is seductive.  The call of "branding" or being recognizable is the call of the dark side.  It leads to doing the same things over and over and convincing yourself that you are doing new work.  Great art takes risks.

Saturday, March 16, 2013


                                               Vine, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

One of the great things about being at the Torpedo Factory Art Center is that every day someone walks in the studio and tells me what wonderful images I take.  The ones who think otherwise tend to keep their thoughts to themselves or just walk on by the studio.

However, several years ago I heard a teacher tell her students not to look in my studio because there were "dirty pictures" on the walls.  That pretty much guaranteed that they would be back to look.  They were probably disappointed!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Standalone Image

My first fine printing class was with George Tice at what today is called the Maine Media Workshops.  George taught the exquisite application of the basics.  There was no special paper, developer, or process that resulted in the "George Tice" image, look, or feel.  Every image stood on its own and was treated as if no other images existed with which it had to go.  Every image deserved to be interpreted in the manner that was optimal for that image.  To my knowledge, George never articulated this philosophy.  It just seemed to me to be the way he approached every image.

That philosophy of treating every image as an individual has stayed with me throughout my photographic life.  I have always felt that every print of an image should be the treatment that best suits that image.  What this means is that over time, my opinion of what an image ought to look like may change.  I have new craft skills and materials.  As an artist, why should I not take advantage of these changes?

One of the most interesting shows I've seen was a retrospective of Ansel Adam's work where several prints of the same image were shown side by side.  One might have been made early in his career, another mid-career, and the final shortly before his death.  There is no question in my mind that he got better over time and/or reinterpreted his negatives.  He did say that the negative was the score and the print was the performance.  And, just like the conductor of a symphony who may reinterpret a symphony over time, he had the right to reinterpret his negatives as he saw fit.

I am always struck by the absurdity of dealers who value early prints as "more closely representing what was in the photographer's mind at the time he took the image."  It may take me years to realize the image that I really want.  The early versions are nothing more than the best I could do at the time.  They are almost a sketch of what I may render in the future.  It may take me years to realize the potential of an image.  What this tells me is that most dealers have never been serious photographers.

It also tells me that dealers have been successful in convincing collectors that early prints are more valuable than later prints, in spite of how we, as photographers, feel about our work.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Just Showing UP

Just Showing Up

The above image has absolutely nothing to do with the subject.  I just liked it....  I guess if it had a full moon in it I could title it Moonrise Over Monument Valley (Homage to Ansel)

Chuck Close, who in addition to being one of the great artists of our times has also become one of the best philosophers of our time, recently said something to the effect that inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up.  I am often struck at the amount of work it takes to create an image that satisfies me.  In the manner that some images are too easy to read, I think there is also something to images that are too easy to create.  Hard work on an image does not create a great image, but hard work on an image often leads to a flow of the creative juices that, potentially, can lead to a great image.  Sometimes it's a different image, but I have found that the harder I work the more images I find that interest me.  Maybe there is a connection...........

Friday, February 1, 2013

Channeling Paul Strand

I'm taking a History of Photography course at Northern Virginia Community College and we'd recently been looking at some of the work of Paul Strand.

I was in Richmond, Virginia the other day to see an exhibit of glass by Dale Chihuly.  It was a fabulous exhibit and well worth the trip.  Besides, the cafeteria there has really good barbecue!

On the grounds of the Virgina Museum of Fine Art is the Confederate Memorial Church.  As I was leaving the museum I drove by the church and noticed the wonderful shadow of the roof and the texture of the wood brought out by the angle of the sun.  I guess I was channeling Paul Strand because I immediately thought of some of his images.

I commented to my wife that I wanted to come back sometime and photograph the church.  She pointed out to me that there was a parking space right on the street and asked what I was waiting for.  To wit, this is the result.