Thursday, August 18, 2011

Learn to Inquire More Deeply into What You See

Timisoara Window

This ancient window, beautiful as it is, represents one of the great missed opportunities of my career. Photographing in Timisoara just three months after the fall of the Ceucescu regime, and before the horror of the Romanian orphanages became known to the world, I came upon a large building whose grounds were enclosed with barred walls. There were many children standing around or playing behind the bars, and some came over to watch me. 

"What's that?" I asked the young Romanian who was showing me around.
"An orphan asylum," he replied.
"Oh, okay," I said, and turned away to the attractive pattern of shadows playing on a window across the street.

Some months later, someone else broke the story of the Romanian orphanages. It could have been me.        Serendipity knocked; nobody was home. (Olympus OM, 100mm Zuiko, Fujichrome 100 film.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

When You Find Something Good, Keep Working It

Clarence Spindler and his "See Rock City" barn

It was early morning when I pulled up to Clarence Spindler's farmhouse on U.S. Highway 41 just north of Evansville, Indiana. Clarence and I had never met; in fact I was not even sure he was still living. All I had to go on was an old file card from the 1960s which had been used by the sign painters who traveled the countryside back then painting "See Rock City" on every barn whose owner would permit it. Thirty-some years later, I was there in pursuit of my quest to make a photograph (and a book) of every Rock City barn still in existence.

Several knocks having produced no answer, I went on around to the barn and began making photographs: first, a series in half-stop brackets, then the same with a Cokin #85 filter to emphasize the warm feel of the rising sun. Clarence himself arrived on the scene just then, and after a few minutes of introduction and pleasant reminiscing I asked if he would mind being in my picture. He allowed that it would be all right and stood where I asked as I made another set of bracketed exposures. "Better and better," I thought. I had a good photo of the barn alone, and an even better photo of Clarence and his barn.

Then serendipity sent a kitten to wrap itself around Clarence's legs and look up at me with eyes gleaming in the morning light.  (Canon EOS A2, 24mm Canon EF lens, Fujichrome Sensia film, Cokin #85  pro-series filter.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Learn to Recognize Great Light

Totonicopan Tailor

Photography is about light. In fact, the word "photograph" comes from two Greek words: photos, which means "light," and grapho, which means "to write." So to photograph really means to write with light.

Learning to see light and use it well is the most basic, but also the most important skill in photography. For me, it has also been the most difficult to acquire and I'm still working at it. A true master of photography can find ways to use almost any kind of light, even the harsh glare and black shadows of mid-day. Most of us, though, will find serendipity favors the slanting, directional rays of morning and evening, the softness of open shade, and the warm glow of windowlight, as in this picture of a Guatemalan tailor making uniforms for students at an evangelical mission school in the mountain town of Totonicopan. A large window to his right was the sole and beautifully sufficient source of illumination.  (Olympus OM, 85mm Zuiko, Fujichrome 100)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Always Carry Your Camera

New England Rednecks

I have never, ever, taken a picture I like on an occasion when I did not have a camera with me.

My wife accompanied me on an assignment one summer which took us to Massachusetts, Maine, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. We traveled by car and were able to take some time off for ourselves, including a pleasant weekend with friends in southwestern New Hampshire. We all went out for a Sunday afternoon ramble, and even though it was an off-day for me I followed my rule of always carrying a camera. I took only an 85mm lens, but the combination proved to be just right when we stopped at the ol' village swimmin' hole. I photographed casually in automatic exposure mode as the dog made dive after dive. This is the one I like best.

Please note that, contrary to popular opinion, rednecks are everywhere, not just in the South.  (Olympus OM2n, 85mm Zuiko, Fujichrome 100.)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Refreshing My Vision with a (Gasp!) Twin-Lens Reflex

I made the switch to digital in 2003 with Canon DSLRs and shot no film for seven years. But about two years ago I realized that I was becoming stale in my way of seeing. I think digital is better than film in most ways, but it does have some built-in traps. And a major trap, for me at least, is the tendency to shoot more and think less. It is just too easy to fire off a string of exposures, check the histogram, and think "Nailed that one. What's next?" My work was okay and my clients were at least happy enough to pay the invoices without protest, but more and more I was finding photography less challenging, less satisfying, and less. . .fun.

McDonough, GA Town Square and Courthouse

In an effort to shake up my vision, I dug my Rolleicord Vb out of retirement, ordered a propak of Astia 120 from B&H, and set off on a road trip for the book I was working on, Georgia: A Backroads Portrait. (Now press-ready -- preview it here: )

Looking down into that square viewfinder, I became aware of composition in a way I hadn't been in years. Even shooting transparency film, I allowed myself only two exposures per scene -- one at the meter reading, and one a half-stop under. And I spent some time walking around, evaluating different angles on the groundglass before making those exposures. When every click of the shutter costs a dollar or more, one tends to think about what one is doing.

It was refreshing, and in a way, very liberating. As Picasso said, “Forcing yourself to use restricted means is the sort of restraint that liberates invention." For me, it was a return to my roots, because the first major influence on my photography was Fritz Henle, known as “Mr. Rollei” for his dedication to the TLR. In the early years of my career I pored over his books, absorbing his classic sense of composition and his philosophy of always searching for the beauty in life.

As I returned to the TLR, I found that many of the things people consider drawbacks are the very things I now like. The square format, for instance: I find that composing to fill the square has done more than any other one thing to refresh my vision. Another “drawback” is the fact that one usually has to look down into the top of the camera to see the viewing screen. I like this, because for me it seems to shut out the rest of the world and allows me to concentrate on what I see on the screen.

A third thing I like about TLRs is that most of them don't have interchangeable lenses. That greatly simplifies things, because instead of trying to be prepared for any and all subjects, I can look for subjects the camera is suited to handle. That is by no means as limiting as it might sound –- in fact, it is liberating rather than limiting. Early in my career I owned a Yashicamat TLR and a Nikon F with two lenses. When I picked up the Nikon, it invariably had the wrong lens mounted, but when I picked up the Yashica, it seemed to always have the right lens.

(This photograph is from my aforementioned book. It was made with a Yashicamat 124 and Fuji Astia 100 film.}

Saturday, August 13, 2011

My All-time Best Photograph

After Evening Chapel at the Abak Mission Hospital

More than any other photograph I’ve ever made, this represents what photography, for me, is all about – beauty and mystery.

The year was 1989 and I was at the mission hospital at Abak, Ibom Province, Nigeria, on assignment for Church of God World Missions. Chapel service had just ended as the setting sun, its beams parallel to the ground, threw a splash of flame against the chapel wall.

I seldom used auto-exposure back then, but there was no time to do anything except raise my Olympus OM2n and click off three quick shots with the lens that was on it – a Tamron 100-300 f4 zoom at the 300mm setting. I noticed that the exposure on Fujichrome RD100 slide film was 1/15th second, so I had little hope of getting anything usable. No chimping in those days!

Back in the US, when the film was processed I was pleased to find that I had one very sharp exposure and another that was usable. This is the best one.