Art and fear | February 2015

single-tulip-Edit

I asked my darkroom instructor a question last week.

“George, has there ever been a time in your life when everything you do in the darkroom is crap?” His answer was brief and poignant.

“Yes.”

In their book Art and Fear Ted Orland and David Bayles talk about how an artist’s job is to make art. Making art – and lots of it – is the only means by which we eventually create bodies of work that will convey our unique vision, our personal narratives. Making art – regardless of the result – offers us the time to practice. To experiment with our materials, fine-tune a technique, refine our work-flow, clarify our vision.

The problem, however, is that we fear the imperfect results of a consistent practice. We become afraid of our mistakes, our false starts, the thought of abandoning yet another project. We fear the prospect that despite our best efforts we may not become rich and famous.

At best our fear prevents us from practicing our craft as often as we should. At worst this fear manifests into paralysis and we stop making art all together.

It has been a week since my brief conversation with George and I have now accepted my current “dry spell” in the darkroom as an essential stage in my creative development.

There will be prints that disappoint but teach me invaluable lessons in their making. Lessons that I otherwise would not have learned.

And there will be prints that let me know I am on the right track – not in spite of my mistakes – but because I was determined to learn from them.

Silver gelatin print
Hasselblad 500c
Hasselblad 120 f4 CF Makro-Plannar
Ilford HP5, ISO 400
Lightrein 400ws strobe with translucent umbrella

Posted in Darkroom sessions

The Omega Man | February 2015

urban-mini

I can barely remember the plot of the 1971 movie The Omega Man but I can vividly recall how it made me feel. The Omega Man stars Charlton Heston who – at the start of the movie – believes he is the sole survivor of a biological war between Russia and China. The film’s opening sequence follows Charlton Heston as he disparately searches for another human being in downtown LA.

This otherwise forgettable movie seeps into my consciousness whenever I find myself alone in an urban environment. When I say alone I am not talking about feeling lonely or isolated. I am talking about that moment when my ears and my eyes tell me that I have found myself alone in a city inhabited by thousands (sometimes millions) of people.

My most recent Omega Man experience happened last spring in Boston while attending a Teaching Professor conference. I stepped outside between sessions in an attempt to warm up. The incessant air conditioning had activated a chill that was becoming difficult for me to manage. Stepping outside was like walking into a sauna. I found a bench, closed my eyes and lost myself in the joy of letting the New England sunshine warm me up.

It wasn’t long before I began to “hear” the silence. Fargo Street was desolate. No cars, no dogs, no people. Just me and the oscillating hum of the traffic lights as they changed from red to green to yellow – for nobody. The scene became increasingly surreal as I waited for a brownstone door to open, a dog to bark, a voice to break the eerie silence. Nothing.

There was a time when I thought this feeling; this awareness of being alone in a large city was déjà vu. I found myself saying, “I’ve been here before. I know this place”.

Turns out it was a feeling, not a place, that was so intensely familiar.

Intense enough (and frequent enough) for me to try and capture that feeling with a camera in my own backyard.

Silver gelatin print
Leica M6
Voigtlander Nokton Classic 35mm f1.4 MC lens
Ilford 125 FP4 Plus, ISO 125

 

Posted in Darkroom sessions

Precious gifts | December 2014

ben-gaze

The magic of photography is the camera’s ability to “stop” time. This quality alone can make the viewing of a photograph deeply nostalgic and often emotional.

Sometimes we get lucky and manage to photograph something that is truly rare, undeniably precious. A fleeting moment manifesting itself at the precise instant the photograph is made. And then it dissolves, sometimes forever.

There are times when a subject is looking directly into your lens but they are miles away. In that fraction of a second their eyes are open but they don’t see you.

They are thinking. Not about where they are. Not about the camera. Not about you.

On these rare occasions the photographer is witnessing a sacred, private moment. The subject has revealed himself or herself to you – willingly.

And you have been offered a precious gift that can last forever.

Silver gelatin print
Hasselblad 500c
Hasselblad 120 f4 CF Makro-Plannar
Ilford HP5, ISO 400
Natural light

 

Posted in Darkroom sessions

Impossible conditions | November 2014

cheerleaders-SAIT1-Edit

It’s too dark, they’re too fast, manual focus is too slow.

One can always find a reason not to take a photograph. Shooting film can turn you into a “cheapskate.”

An unwise man once said “Choose your scenes carefully because you can’t afford to waste film.”

It was dark in this parking garage but the energy, enthusiasm and infectious smiles of these young ladies lit up this stretch of slippery cement like I was standing on a beach in Waikiki.

They danced with such passion and purpose I found myself in a trance with my Leica perched in my hands. In a German accent it whispered “Wake up and take some pictures! This won’t last long.”

The lighting conditions were far from perfect and they were moving so fast I was having difficulty keeping them in focus. Click, advance, click, advance…

I quickly burned through half a roll of film.

I walked away thinking it would take a miracle in the darkroom to get a print I would be happy with. Working in such low light with fast moving subjects meant that the negatives were guaranteed to be dark and blurry.

So why would I “waste” half a roll of film in lighting conditions that I knew would produce negatives I couldn’t use?

Because I was hoping for just one negative. One that wasn’t too dark. One that had just enough blur to convey their contagious energy.

I just needed one.

Silver gelatin print
Leica M6
Voigtlander Nokton Classic 35mm f1.4 MC lens
Ilford 125 FP4 Plus, ISO 125

 

 

 

 

Posted in Darkroom sessions

“I know too much and not enough” | November 2014

italian-couple-boston

Henri Cartier-Bresson had this to say about taking photographs in familiar settings. “To interest people on far away places — to shock them, to delight them — is not too difficult. But the most difficult thing is on your own country.”

He continues, “Places where I am all the time, I know too much and not enough. And to be lucid about it is the most difficult.”

I am proud to say that I have a least one thing in common with this photographic master. I too experience this dilemma everyday. Walking the familiar streets of the city in which I live, my mind (and eyes) are elsewhere.

Put me in a “new” city and my opaque viewfinder becomes crystal clear. A quick walk around the hotel (to get my bearings) becomes a 3-hour plunge into a visual candy store where I am stimulated to the point of being photographically autistic. Every detail, every nuance and gesture catches my eye. The light begins to hum and I start walking heel to toe.

In Boston this past spring the photographs were everywhere. In the north end I ran out of film within a couple of blocks.

Feeling elated (and exhausted) I put my camera away, bought a gelato and found a bench upon which to sit and think.

“How can I see this way when I get back home?”

Silver gelatin print
Leica M6
Voigtlander Nokton Classic 35mm f1.4 MC lens
Ilford HP5, ISO 400

 

Posted in Darkroom sessions

Finding inspiration | September 2014

boston-busker

I met this gentleman performing on a subway platform beneath the busy streets of central Boston.

His baritone lured me down the steps of the Downtown Crossing Station. The guitar he was playing (tuned to Open D – I think) projected a quadraphonic “bouncy castle” of sound that echoed endlessly throughout the platform with a sustained reverb that I could only half duplicate with an electronic pedal.

I put a ten in his guitar case and slowly reached for my camera.

When he finished playing he immediately jumped up, shook my hand and thanked me over and over again. I told him he was one of the best buskers I have ever heard – ever. In my life!

He was speechless – both of us suddenly aware of an odd silence in an impossibly loud subway platform.

We all have something that we are particularly good at and for that we should be grateful. Talent can be found everywhere.

But to be gifted…

That is something to treasure. No matter where we find it.

Note to self: The next time I look up hoping to find inspiration and find nothing – try looking in the opposite direction.

Silver gelatin print
Leica M6
Voigtlander Nokton Classic 35mm f1.4 MC lens
Ilford HP5, ISO 400

Posted in Darkroom sessions

Beyond the frame | September 2014

boston-street-Edit

This past spring I attended a Teaching Professor Conference in Boston, MA. I set a goal to walk as much as possible and to shoot at least 3 rolls of HP5 before the conference ended. So I hit the streets of Boston following my camera lens instead of a map.

The camera was a Leica M6. A beautiful 35mm film rangefinder. It is small (but heavy), extremely quiet and looks old which makes me invisible to the camera-snatchers in the crowd.

The viewfinder in a rangefinder is different from other cameras. It has frame lines that mark the “edges” of a scene. Anything within the frame lines will be in the photograph, anything beyond will not.

Seeing beyond the frame lines allows you to orchestrate a dynamic composition by “seeing” exactly when to press the shutter.

This is one reason rangefinder cameras are so popular with street photographers. They can “see” what is happening beyond the frame without having to remove their eye from the viewfinder.

I saw him long before I composed and set up the exposure for this shot. His footsteps had an unusual cadence. I could feel his urgency.

I knew I wouldn’t have long to wait.

Silver gelatin print
Leica M6
Voigtlander Nokton Classic 35mm f1.4 MC lens
Ilford HP5, ISO 400

 

Posted in Darkroom sessions

Forest for the trees | May 2014

tree-trunk-Edit

The latest issue of Square Magazine features a collection of photographs by Olivier Du Tré. The series is called Volts and consists of 9 black and white images of utility poles. The subject matter is so ubiquitous, so common that we hardly notice them as we stroll through our neighbourhoods or travel along our highways. Olivier not only reminds us of their existence, he portrays the columns in this series as works of art.

I took this photograph in an aspen forest west of Calgary, Alberta. The phrase “can’t see the forest for the trees” comes to mind as I try to recall what drew me to this particular tree in the middle of a boreal forest.

I remember noticing the bark first. Peeling away like an open wound. I remember thinking its armor was being removed.

We tend to ignore the ubiquitous and often take such things for granted. Trees, utility poles, people.

There is beauty to be found in the things we perceive as common. Sometimes we just need to be reminded. Sometimes we just need to be shown.

Silver gelatin print
Hasselblad 500c
Hasselblad 80mm f2.8 lens
Ilford HP5, ISO 400

 

Posted in Darkroom sessions

Contrast | April 2014

louisville audi

When I am working in my darkroom I tend to print my photographs on the dark side, with lots of contrast. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

It works well when there are visual islands of white bouncing my eyes back and fourth across the image.

It works best when my eyes linger within the frame – after the initial burst of visual ping-pong. If I am working with a good negative the details in the background will emerge slowly.

If I print the photograph too dark the details in the background are lost. Too light and the lack of contrast removes the “pop” that initially draws the viewer into the image.

This photograph was taken in Louisville, Kentucky. A beautiful new Audi parked next to a building that has seen better days.

Is there such a thing as too much contrast in a black and white photograph?

That depends on the type of contrast we are talking about.

Silver gelatin print
Leica M6
Voigtlander Nokton Classic 35mm f1.4 MC lens
Ilford HP5, ISO 400

Posted in Darkroom sessions

Personal space | April 2014

Tony

Diane Arbus has often been criticized for her aggressive photographic style. Among other things her critics insisted that she stood far too close to her subjects when she took their photograph. The critics preached that she often violated her subjects personal space.

Head and shoulder portraits are perceived as intimate. The viewer is pulled into the subjects personal space as if suddenly drawn into a conversation. “What are you thinking? What are you feeling?”

Full-length portraits present the subject in context. The environment within which the portrait is taken plays an important role in the portrayal of the subject. The viewing experience is less cerebral. The viewer is more likely to wonder what the subject is doing rather than what they are thinking or feeling.

My neighbour was kind enough to let me take this portrait. A photographer himself we chatted for an hour about the joys of analogue photography. Tony had no problem letting me move within the limits of his personal space. He knows the code to open my garage door. We trust each other.

So, if I were to guess…

What is Tony thinking? That he hasn’t seen a Hasselblad 500c in a very long time.

What is Tony feeling? Hungry. I was keeping him from his supper.

A cerebral viewing experience? Perhaps not.

Silver gelatin print
Hasselblad 500c
Hasselblad 120 f4 CF Makro-Plannar
Ilford HP5, ISO 400

 

Posted in Darkroom sessions