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

Victoria Park | September 2013

PeppersTo the casual observer street photography would seem like an easy genre to work in. The casual observer would be wrong!

The very best artists make their creative process look effortless. Street photographers are no different. They practice their craft at such a high, instinctive level that it is easy to fool oneself into thinking that shooting street is easy.

The more I shoot on the street, the more I realize how much I have yet to learn. Specifically, how to arrange the space in my viewfinder when I am using a 35mm lens.

Sometimes I get close. This frame was shot at midnight in July. I was running with my family trying to beat a pedestrian crossing signal before it turned red.

The iron fence is what initially caught my attention.

I stopped running to set up the shot. Fumbling with the focus ring all I could hear was “Hurry up Dad, the light is turning red!”

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

Posted in Darkroom sessions

The Middle Way | August 2013

Lady in Chinatown

The expression on this woman’s face reminds me of a Buddhist concept called The Middle Way. Live your life while consciously avoiding extremes. You are neither happy or sad – you simply are.

I could see on the negative of this print a faint crescent of light illuminating her face. I knew this spot lighting was key to making this photograph work. That disc of light would draw the viewer’s eye directly to the most important part of the photograph – her face and specifically her mouth.

She appears to be perfectly at peace. Looking at her mouth I can almost see the faint smile of Siddhartha Gautama meditating beneath the Bodhi tree.

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

Posted in Darkroom sessions

Chinatown Street Festival | August 2013

Peppers

Summer festivals are great environments in which to practice street photography. Everyone has a camera, people are in good moods and you are less likely to get punched in the face. Think of a street festival as a safe, cozy classroom in which to practice your craft.

The Calgary Chinatown Street Festival is held every year in August. This is fertile ground indeed for street photography. I loaded my M6 with a roll of HP5, dialed in a hyperfocal distance on my 35mm lens and started shooting like I was a member of a skeet club.

This gentleman was a gift. The radial stripes on his black and white toque drew me in like a fish on a line. Perhaps this is what Ansel Adams meant when he talked about the ability to previsualize a photograph.

 

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

Posted in Darkroom sessions

A lesson learned | May 2013

I was convinced this photograph wouldn’t “turn out”.

To be honest I released the shutter – frowning. The vegetation would be a distraction. It would only get in the way.

I wanted to wait – hoping that the horse would eventually move closer to me. I was convinced there would be a better opportunity – I just had to be patient.

But he was being cautious. He stopped and stared at me for what seemed like a long time. So I took this frame before he turned around and walked away.

I wrote it off as a waste of film. I wasn’t  close enough, the trees were in the way, this wasn’t what I had previsualized.

The horse did come through the thicket. Close enough for me to run my freezing hands along his warm, thick neck.

And yet…

This was the best negative out of a total of 6 frames. What I had originally considered a liability in the composition (the trees) turned out to be the very thing that makes this photograph work.

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

Posted in Darkroom sessions

Portrait | May 2013

There is nothing like watching a portrait session contact sheet coming to life in the developing tray.

This portrait was made with a single strobe positioned camera right and a white reflector for fill on the left. The background is black velvet and my son is wearing a black pajama top.

Technical challenges aside the biggest accomplishment in this portrait is the fact that the eyes are in focus. Hard to do with a perpetually moving subject.

 

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