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Posts from the ‘Photo Techniques’ Category

The Structure of Currents – New Work

I’ve been striving diligently to simplify my images.  I can speculate as to my motivation for doing so, maybe it has something to do with how messy the world is these days.  I also have a tremendous fondness for the work of folks such as Michael Kenna.  (If you’re serious about photography or art, please hit the link.  You will not regret it.)  More pragmatically though, this effort requires reducing the number of elements included within the frame.  Turns out this is not as easy as it might sound.  Life around us is filled with complexity.  It is in fact messy.  So, much like creating sculpture, you have to keep taking things out.  Unfortunately, unlike when working with sculpture, you can’t just pop out a tree.  OK, you could with photoshop if the tree is positioned just right and if you’re really good at doing that type of work.  The result though still frequently looks as though the image is missing something that was popped out in photoshop. Alternatively,I find that I have to think about a potential image in a new way.

Recently I’ve been spending time at the South Natick Dam along the Charles River in eastern Massachusetts.  I find it very restful there.  It is also a wonderful place to photograph.  On one side of the River you can even sit in the shade while photographing the River in bright, hot sunlight. It’s almost too easy.

But it is not a simple place to photograph.  Again, there is a great deal going on.  So, as Bill Neil says, you have to edit out reality, often by using a telephoto lens.  I once had an exchange with Bill in which I asked him how he might go about managing some issues in a wide angle shot.  His answer:  “I’d never take a shot like that.  Too messy.”

I’ve posted many pictures of flowing water here including in my most recent post. Typically, I want to give the viewer a sense of place by providing the context for the water’s flow.  What if you ignore the need for a sense of place, and just explore the water?  What you find are structures in the water’s flow.  Every photographer who photographs water knows this of course.  You can see structure if you shoot at around 1/4 of a second to maybe two seconds.  After that, the water just glows, which has a beauty in itself.  I’ve become interested in the structures that emerge with just a bit of a slow shutter.  What do they reveal?  I’ll let you be the judge.

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Photoessay: Searching for a Mood Under the Highway

I hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving.  We did, it was great spending time with family as always.  I had much to be thankful for this year, including a more experimental attitude.  Why not?

I’ve been exploring the Blackstone River area in Massachusetts over the last few months.  It is striking just how much psychological as well as environmental territory the River covers.  Though it remains quite polluted from centuries of exploitation, stretches of the River are quite beautiful and natural.  Other stretches are, more complex.  No stretch of the River though, at least that I have traveled, requires more effort to understand than the Blackstone Valley Bike Trail in Worcester, Massachusetts, where the River originates.  Along this two mile or so stretch you will see the River, a super highway (Route 146), an active freight train yard and line, as well as legacy tracks, a Walmart and Sam’s Club, trees being cut by a beaver, beautiful small falls and rapids, trash and signs that say stay away from the water for health reasons.  It’s all right there.  Nature and civilization crash into one another at top speed in places and this is one of those locations.

I have photographed there for months, searching for the right way to capture the feel of such a complex place.  I’d used most every technological trick I could think of, but ultimately wasn’t satisfied.  I decided to go back and try again, this time with black and white film.  Digital is just capable of making pictures that are too perfect for this location it seemed to me.  Nothing about this location says “perfection.”  This work, like this location, is incomplete and some of the images you see here may not survive the next cut.  This is where things stand though at the moment.

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Shooting on film is interesting of course.  I realize that the look can be replicated in software using a digital means of capture.  But that somehow doesn’t seem quite right at times.  What is really different about shooting on film is the process.  You do indeed slow down.  You have to for economic reasons if nothing else.  For a time, you have to step away from the technological (rat) race.  It’s quite refreshing.

Tech Notes:  Shot on Kodak TMax and Ilford Delta films using a Nikon F6.  The later, for my money, remains the finest 35 mm camera ever made.  Negatives scanned on a Nikon 5000 film scanner and finalized in Lightroom/Photoshop (You can’t really escape the technology can you.)

Monet and the Light

I’ve been taking an ongoing workshop at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, Massachusetts, Atelier, lead by Meg Birnbaum who is terrific.  Among other things, we’re asked to think about our work from a variety of new perspectives, a task which is very helpful.   One of those is called “conversation with an artist.”  Simply put, you choose an artist of interest and present your work in relation to that artist’s work and think about how that artist may have influenced you.  In 1978 I had a chance to visit an exhibition of the works of Claude Monet, one of the founders of the Impressionism,, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  I have always known that this experience and his work deeply influenced me, but didn’t think about how and why.  I simply liked it.  Impressionist works are really about, in my view, the impression the scene leaves on you, more than about creating a representation of the scene.   I never really explored the history of impressionism and the relationship between the artists and the landscapes with which they worked, however. This exercise gave me a chance to do so and the results were very interesting.  If you click on the link over Monet’s name above, you’ll go to wonderful web site that offers an in-depth look at his work as well as some background.  But do come back!

It can be difficult for us to understand the state of art in the 1800’s.  It was a different world. Monet’s generation though was blessed by having available to them new technology.  No, not digital….oil paint in a tube.  That of course is something we take for granted now, but such was not always the case.  We are used to the common sight of seeing a painter with easel, canvas and paints working in front of an appropriate scene, outside.  Before Monet’s generation that was very difficult to do because the paints had to be mixed in quantity from scratch, a messy and time-consuming business. If you’ve seen pictures of Mathew Brady’s field darkroom, it was essentially a covered wagon.  The same would be necessary to paint in the field.  So they didn’t.  Incredible as it seems, most landscape art was created in studio, the artist referring to notes and sketches.  Monet and his colleagues worked “in open air.”

This revolutionary technique allowed them to make note of, and be influenced by, something photographers take for granted.  We are not creating an image of an object but rather how the light strikes an object.  Monet did some many paintings of various lily pads because he wanted to see how light, time of day, weather, etc. changed the scene.  Of course, such changes are not at all trivial. Any object at mid-day outdoors may look radically different at sunset, or on a cloudy day.  The painter and the photographer use this difference more than the gesture or physical presence of the scene, to achieve the desired result. Monet saw the light.

What Impressionists are known for however, I think, is more their refusal to get lost in details. They tried to capture the “essence” of a scene.  They  used broad colorful brush strokes and tolerated intense color contrasts.  This of course lead to their being ostracized by the powers that be in the French art community of the time.  Most of them experienced significant poverty, though ultimately, their work began to catch on.  After all these years, I still like it.  With apologies to Monet then,  I went back and looked at some of my favorite images over the last five or six years.  The results were interesting.  I’ll share a few of them here.

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This image, taken at sunrise is from Ocean City, New Jersey.  This abandoned pier is famous among photographers for obvious reasons.  Alas, it is also gone, courtesy of supper storm Sandy.  (Technical note: very little post production corrections were made on these images.  I typically set a black point, white point and applied a bit of contrast.  That’s it.  That is all that was necessary, an interesting lesson.)

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From a little bit further south, Cape May at sunset.  (Thank goodness, I hate getting up for a sunrise shoot, particularly during the summer!)

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This is a “swipe”, a technique I learned from Tony Sweet.  The camera is set to have as low shutter speed and one moves the camera while the shutter is open.  As you can guess, this fails repeatedly, so you’ll need to take many images to get what you want.

All of these images, and the two below, have something in common.  I had planted the tripod (in all cases but the one directly above) and did not move as I watched the light change over the course of between 10 minutes and two hours.  I took an image every minute or two.  I never knew if the last one was going to be the best one, until the inspiring light was gone, and things turned either all black or all blue.  Once those images, between 20 and 100 are loaded into the computer, I then have a record of how the light evolved over time.  Like Monet, we’re able to study how the light interacts with the object.

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From Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.  This was taken, amazingly, at mid-day.  It is surprising what can happen if you wait.  These images though also all required a long shutter speed.  One does that to smooth out water, or to achieve a sense of movement in the sky.  You’re left though with the essence of the image, not the details, at least in most cases.

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This final image is of Roanoke Sound off Manteo, North Carolina, after a storm.  Is photography objective, or subjective?  Does it in fact matter?  Of course it does if you’re engaged in photojournalism, but beyond that, I’m not so sure.  Some artists believe that we should never look back, lest we be influenced by those who came before.  I actually don’t think that’s possible.  On the contrary, I think, as with most history, we learn a great deal.

New Bird in Town – D810 Comments

I’ve blogged here on numerous occasions about urban wildlife such as the blue heron’s that frequent Elm Park.  (Elm Park is located in downtown Worcester, Massachusetts).  Today, however, we found ourselves confronted with a heron of a different color, white.

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I did a bit of quick research upon returning home, looking at questions such as “what is the difference between a heron and an egret?” and “what is the range of the white egret, or heron?”  Alas, my efforts were somewhat frustrated.   According to Wikipedia the difference between heron and egret is largely terminological rather than biological.  Egrets tend to be white.  If you google the two terms and check on images, you’ll see the same kinds of images.  My bottom line question really was:  are they new in town?  Memory tells me yes.  They are very common in the mid-Atlantic and further south, but I don’t recall seeing too many in New England.  Someone educate me if my memory is off, it wouldn’t be the first time.

Photographing these birds is relatively easy.  You can get quite close if are are respectful and quiet. After all, this was in a downtown park, not exactly the middle of the marsh.  Herons also don’t seem to be easily distracted from their work, which is fishing.  Unfortunately for this fair specimen, he was having little luck.  We watched him for quite some time and he was coming up empty beaked, every time.  Herons are usually better at their jobs than that.  This one may need to step up his game.  The best shot is often one with them flying in or out, or exhibiting their catch.  This guy stood there and though his forays into the water were very graceful, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

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It was tough to get another interesting shot until a well timed flock of geese flew across the scene.  He was actually startled for a second, but the incident did give me some background that was badly needed.

 

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It will be interesting to see if his presence in the Park is a trend or an outlier.  Or, as I mentioned above, is only of interest because of my failing memory.  Regardless, I do wish him good luck fishing.  He needs it.

Tech Note:

Much as I dislike the kind of photographic gear discussions that take place on the internet, I did want to mention that these shots were taken with Nikon’s newest DSLR, the D810.  I’ve been a Nikon user for many years, and really enjoyed the image output from the D800.  If you print large for exhibitions, all those pixels are useful.  Plus, the D800 has incredible dynamic range, very useful for nature work.  However, it always felt to me like it was really a studio, tripod camera, and handled more like the medium format cameras it has been replacing.  I also like to shot more spontaneously from time to time.  The D810 now makes that possible.  In many different ways, Nikon fixed things that weren’t broken, but made it hard to really relax with the D800.  The grip is better, the shutter is much quieter, the shutter mechanism does not create vibrations that undermine the high resolution power of the images, the video features are improved, etc.  In this case, all those pixels allowed me to crop heavily into the image.  These are all the equivalent of a 100% crop.  Obviously I should have had a longer lens, but alas, I did not.  I could go on and on, but others are doing a much better job of actually reviewing this piece of gear.  If you have a D800 though, it may not look like a worthwhile upgrade.  It actually may be for some people, particularly those desiring to make the D800 a real “go to” camera.  Again, I dislike tribal gear discussions.  All cameras these days are quite good.  It really boils down to trying to find the one that does the job you need, and with which you can be most comfortable.  That is likely to vary from person to person.

The Quandry of Simplicity

I’ve been seeking the “Holy Grail” recently and as is typically the case, coming up empty handed.  So what constitutes a good photograph?  Stupid question, I know. The answer is “a good photograph.” There is no answer other than, it all depends.  But that doesn’t stop us from trying.  As many wiser people have told me, or written, art is so subjective that if you’re aspiring to practice it, you are buying yourself an on-going confidence problem.  Is it any good?  Well, it really does all depend. You’re supposed to learn the rules of photography when you start getting serious, but then you’re supposed to break them routinely.  My most recently I have been worshipping at the alter of simplicity.  Edie Adams famously said that the best photographs are simple, they have just a one or two elements.  You try to get everything else out of the frame.

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That little clump of grass has a true life of its own.  It survives storm after storm, and it’s still there, by itself.  (All the images in this blog are from my recent trip to Manteo, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  This is an early evening shot of Roanoke Sound.)  There is a large bridge just to the right of the frame and closer to the photographer, on either side of the frame is significant and quite attractive foliage.  There is very little beach.  You just get a hint of the rocks in the fore ground.  The image is then heavily cropped, albeit in the lens.

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Here’s a somewhat messy location on the other side of the Island, overlooking Croatan Sound.  I have cropped (in camera and in the digital darkroom) severely to simplify the image.  This is a public location but it is poorly kept. This was actually the location of the  Confederate Battery that was supposed to stop the Union Navy from capturing the Island and controlling sea access to North Carolina during the Civil War.  The Confederates were shall we say not successful.

I enjoy the simplicity of the image and the one or two elements (I guess you’d say four actually, counting the sky.)  But can you live your life that way?

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Let me say it for you…”what the hell is that?”  That is the bottom of the root system of an overblown tree, half submerged in the water.  You find it along a charming nature walk at Pocosin National Wildlife Refuge in Columbia, NC, not far from the Outer Banks.  It sits there, providing house and home for all sorts of critters.  The Park Service will not touch it, and they shouldn’t.  This tree is going to keep on giving for many years, even though it’s formal life is over.  I find it joyfully complex, almost overwhelming.  Who knows what’s going on in there at any given time.  Probably a lot.  Nature perhaps is not simple.  There are indeed quiet and one could say simple moments of harmony, but the constant state of change we find in nature is neither simple nor harmonious. Photography and art more generally has to somehow grapple with those discontinuities.  My pursuit of a perfectly simple world was off target.  Glad I figured that one out.