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

Garlic and a hiatus | March 2014

Peppers

I was in my darkroom last night for the first time in a couple of months. I am currently working on a portrait project for Square Magazine that has taken me away from the red glow of the safe light and the brittle perfume of fixer.

As much as I love still life, there is a lingering connection with a subject when developing their portrait.

The subject continues to look at you long after the portrait session has ended. You recall the conversation, their story. The experience grows a long tail and you become nostalgic.

So last night I asked myself: “Why was I suddenly feeling uninspired as I rocked the developing tray back and forth in the dark, patiently waiting for this “ripe” bulb of garlic to reveal itself.”

Still life photography for me has always been enjoyable. Suddenly I found myself questioning whether or not sill life was worth the effort. To be frank I was a little worried.

Worth the effort? Turns out the answer to my question wasn’t going to be found perched upon a rickety soap box.

Still life as an art form has always been about control. Control over the subject, the composition, the light, the shadows, reflections. The camera. Such mastery emerges slowly after years of practice, making mistakes, learning and more practice.

Last night I reminded myself that in photography – as in life – it is always about the journey, not the destination.

Easier said than done when even a tiny glimpse of the destination makes it difficult to turn back.

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

Posted in Darkroom sessions

Street portraits | January 2014

Street portrait 1Street portrait 2Street portrait 3smoking-red018-Edit.jpg

On New Year’s Eve I spent the morning taking street portraits. I thought a good place to start would be with the bike couriers. Bike couriers, I reasoned, would be exceedingly cooperative – given their predisposition towards adventure and risk taking. They couldn’t possibly refuse my request to photograph them.

I was right. Patient, accommodating, courteous. Each of them gracefully took their turn at debunking the urban “myth” that bicycle messengers are rude and reckless.

Our exchange caught the attention of a gentleman quietly enjoying a cigarette. I asked him if I could take his portrait. He said “Of course.”

When I was finished we shook hands and wished each other a Happy New Year.

He disappeared behind a set of glass doors. The bike couriers had returned to their work.

And I headed home feeling grateful for what each of them had given me without asking for a thing in return.

Silver gelatin print
Hasselblad 500c
Hasselblad 120 f4 CF Makro-Plannar
Ilford HP5, ISO 400
Sekonic L-758D light meter

Posted in Darkroom sessions

Courage in Kentucky | December 2013

security guard

As an instructor at a technical institute, I meet and teach approximately 150 new students a year. I have been teaching for the past 15 years. That’s 2,250 students.

So the question I have been asking myself lately is “Why do I have such difficulty approaching a stranger on the street and asking them if I may take their portrait?” I have several theories that a highly paid therapist might find interesting.

It wasn’t until I attended a conference in Louisville, Kentucky last month that I discovered something really interesting. In Louisville I had no trouble taking portraits of “strangers.” I met and photographed Robert and Daryl – two barbers that worked in an old style barber shop downtown. I met and photographed 2 chefs having a smoke in an alley behind my hotel. I met and photographed a hairstylist working with her client in a beauty salon that was decorated in late 70s sheik.

And then I met and photographed John. He was the least willing of my subjects that morning yet he provided me with the best portrait.

So what did I learn about making street portraits? Specifically, how to approach a prospective subject on the street:

  1. Introduce yourself, offer to shake their hand and smile.
  2. Ask permission to take their photograph. When I explained that this was an assignment for a photography class, the response was always positive.
  3. Put the camera down and ask questions about who they are and where they are from. Get them to talk about themselves.
  4. When you think they are ready, explain to them exactly what you intend to do with your camera.
  5. The less direction you give them the better. They are doing you a favor and the more you direct them, the less cooperative they may become.
  6. Don’t waste their time. Be sensitive to subtle clues indicating that they are done (see above photo).
  7. Thank them for the opportunity to take their photograph.

Being completely anonymous in Louisville somehow forced me to discover these steps for myself.

There is no guarantee that the above guidelines will always work but for now – and for me – it’s a start.

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

Posted in Darkroom sessions

Glove | November 2013

glove

“If you are going to be inspired, you might as well be inspired by the best!”

And so began a recent critique session between myself and my darkroom instructor George Webber.

My inspiration for this photograph was Irving Penn. Penn created a series of still life photographs of garbage. Cigarette butts, used paper cups, a discarded glove.

What makes these images of Penn’s so interesting is the fact that he had spent a good part of his career photographing high fashion and famous celebrities.

Penn was a master at portraying “beautiful” subjects. So why would he choose a dirty glove as a subject? Why did I?

For starters I shot this glove because Irving Penn did (see above) and I was interested in what my reaction might be to shooting and printing a similar subject.

The first thing I noticed as this image came to life in my darkroom was its shape. In quick succession I stopped “thinking” about the subject as a glove and started to focus on the aesthetic qualities “portrayed” in the photograph.

I started to notice the subject’s form, its texture and rich detail.  My eyes scanned the tonal variations as if I were trying to read a topographic map. Searching for something.

Did I “portray” an ugly glove as something beautiful? Hardly. Only someone as talented as Irving Penn could accomplish that.

Did I create a photograph that is interesting?

Perhaps.

 

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

Posted in Darkroom sessions

Leisure time | October 2013

Man wiht cigarI photographed this gentleman while on a cruise this summer with my family. On a ship full of passengers sedated by spectacular scenery and fresh sea air, this gentleman stood out for me as someone who knew how to relax.

Working on a crossword puzzle he would pause to take a long leisurely puff on his cigar. From time to time he would lift a pair of binoculars to his eyes and scan the surface of the ocean. Eventually he would return to his crossword only to repeat this sequence over and over again.

It occurred to me – suddenly – that his slowly receding cigar became a time-piece of sorts. A way for me to verify that time hadn’t come to a complete stop in such a beautiful part of the world.

It was a perfect way to spend the morning. His crossword and a cigar, my camera and 4 rolls of HP5.

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

Posted in Darkroom sessions