5.25.2010

Confronted with Craftsmanship.


If you've read my blogs over the past months you probably know that I like to grab the camera de jour and point the racing Element (for the flat of humor,  the Element is the lowest performance car I've owned since my original 65 horsepower VW Beetle.  Yes, the old one....).  I like walking around because it's a fun way to get some exercise but I also have a secondary agenda.  I've been dropping in to San Antonio for over a decade because I like the way it changes between visits and I like that downtown SA is still a sidewalk culture.  You still see people out and about.  I recently grabbed my Olympus EP-2 and hit the streets.  I was walking up Houston street amazed at all the buildings and businesses gone or transformed when I walked up to the Majestic theater.
I've been by the Theater many times before, mainly because it's entrance is tucked under an overhanging  second story that provides all day shade and a cool place to walk in hot, sticky summer visits.  In that sense it reminds me of the streets in Bologna.  I'd noticed the ticket booth many times but for some reason I was really captivated on this visit.  The paint was freshly redone and the colors were vibrant.  But more than that, I took some time to really look at how much effort and craftsmanship went into building this in the first place and how meticulously it has been maintained.  It's been there longer than I can remember....
The light was low but I leaned on the camera's pretty decent IS instead of ratcheting up the ISO.  I wanted to keep the colors as crisp and saturated as possible.  I ended up shooting at 1/15th of second to 1/30th of a second nearly wide open with my 38mm Pen F lens with a Pen adapter.  The photos are no great shakes.  I'm not an architectural photographer.  But they resonate with me because I can see so much hand detail in every frame.  Especially so in the close-up below.  They are convincing evidence that spreadsheets lie and that a few extra steps and effort might have long term benefits that justify prodding budgets.  We forget sometimes that the world should be wonderous and beautiful.  Just want to share this one with you.  If you are heading to SA it's right in the middle of downtown on Houston street.  Happy shooting.

Small, fast cameras. Bigger is not better.


Wouldn't it be great to be able to spend the rest of your days walking through the streets of exciting cities and taking images of whatever caught your eye?  Sucks living in a car city.  Maybe that's why I like roaming streets crowded with pedestrians in other cities.  Here in Austin most of us live in "neighborhoods" or suburbs.  More people are moving into downtown but the street culture is very nascent.  I can hardly wait for it to catch up.  I do my part.  I head into downtown whenever I can and I patronize the cool little restaurants and bars that are starting to spill out to the sidewalks.

The photo above was taken in Paris with a small Nikon 35ti film camera and some Tri-X.  The camera fit in my hand and never had a strap.  It was easy to prefocus, the fixed 35mm lens meant that I had no decisions to make about lenses.  I could set a manual exposure and argue with the camera later when I went into the dark room.  I KNOW it is faster to use in this way than ANY autofocus DSLR with any zoom lens on the front.  And I know that the time spent in doing the process with a slower camera would change the dynamic.  I'm not concerned when shooting in the street that someone will be angry or will keep me from working.  I'm only concerned that the thing I saw, the emotion I wanted to capture, not be changed by people's realization of my presence, my intention or any other controllable parameter.

Everyone believes that their reality is the "real" one.  Except the Jedi Knights.  They knew that your focus determines your reality.   And my focus is locked at ten feet.
A more intimate image taken with a Canonet QL17 and tri-x.

Final word on the small cameras.  You will more likely carry a small camera that intrudes less on you.  And when you have it with you then you'll have more and more opportunities to connect with the things that tickle your subconscious.

Beginner's Eyes. Getting them back.


I am sad that I learned so much about the plumbing of photography because my desire to make technically perfect images has certainly gone a long way toward beating up the part of my brain that just wanted to look at stuff and go, "Hey! They would be neat.  Let's just press the button."

There always comes a time when you have to sort through stuff and file things away deeper and deeper into the warehouse of treasures to make room for the newer treasures.  You sort through in case you missed a few gems that need to be put into more convenient storage (metaphorically speaking).  And in this process you invariably come across things that disquiet your own self image.  Take for instance the concepts of "mastery".  I took this photo above in 1978 before I knew anything about photography.  I lined up the "stick-with-the-lollypop" (match needle metering)  in the finder of a Canon TX camera and pushed the button.  And then I learned how to take pictures.  But, we live in a society that loves to dissect and quantify.  In some sense our modern culture group-thinks that all phenomena can be explained if only we can subject it to a rigorous enough bisection, followed by a meticulous calculation of the components.

Our prevailing idea of mastery is to know ALL the technical steps that can be known for completing a project with "best practices".  That requires turbo-charging the math and analytical side of your brain.  But the practice is fraught with all kinds of peril.  The math brain is a very vicious hoodlum in many regards.  But mostly because he believes that everything can be reduced to a series of memorized formulae.  Eventually you will know all the reasons why every scene you come across is "compromised" and unable to be "effectively" shot and made "perfect".  You begin only to photograph scenes that can be shoehorned into the narrow definition of perfection.  At some point your technical focus becomes your reality.  You cease to see things outside the filter of this reality.  You have now gained technical master while atrophying the part of your brain that was responsible for recognizing the subjects that made you feel happy and engaged.  Engaged not because you could capture them perfectly but because you would enjoy the experience of visually encountering them even if a camera were not involved.

At this point the technical considerations become a mental straightjacket binding your creative limbs and preventing you from hurting yourself by "having to" endure the possibility of a failed photo.  How sad.  At that point you will have lost your "beginner's eyes" and the very thrill that compelled you to be a photographer in the first place.

Cameras like the Lomo are an attempt to short circuit technical thinking and just react.  But we don't really need to degrade our cameras to return to the pure joy of photography.  We only need to respond emotionally to what's in front of the camera and to click with whatever camera we have in hand.  Sometimes I am more attracted to the failed frame than the traditional keeper.

You may be more enlightened than me.  This issue may not come up for you.  But if you are a technical/research/process/workflow/measurement kind of guy chances are you've got it so bad you can't even see it.  You can work on getting back to an unguarded or technically un-nuanced  reaction to images or you can accept that compulsive reduction is part of your gestalt and just enjoy the process as you enjoy it and ignore my own self-examination.

I do know one thing.  I liked the energy in the  photos I took years ago.  A lot.  It made up for the glitches.

A portrait of a stranger's feet.

"To me, photography is an art of observation. It's about finding something interesting in an ordinary place... I've found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them."
Elliott Erwitt 


I was originally asked to photograph dancers.  But the image I remember from that particular photo shoot was of these feet.  It was a quick shot, recognized and recorded on one or two frames before the dancer moved and the image was gone.  You can try to create the amazing things you see, from time to time, but really it's never the same. There's a magic in the undisturbed recognition that can never be fully recreated.  That's why it's always important to shoot the moment the "every day" transforms into magic.  But just like magic, it's all gone in an instant......


Shoot more.  Think less.  Happy photographer.