Craft Matters

Concerning the PBS NewsHour Story on Ilfochrome

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I had the privilege to work with PBS NewsHour Weekend and my friend, Christopher Burkett, on a story airing Sunday, April 15th that features Christopher and the discontinued photographic medium Ilfochrome.

As one of the few remaining darkroom practitioners of Ilfochrome, this has been quite exciting. Celebrating the tradition of the handcrafted photographic print (in color nonetheless!) is a rare treat.

For the record, the Ilfochrome featured in the PBS NewHour story was discontinued in 2011. Ilfochrome was, and still is (for those very few of us who still have paper) the only process for producing photographic prints directly from color transparency film. It is a unique direct-positive, chromolytic process that can produce analog-based photographic prints of exceptional depth, luminosity, and color.

Ilfochrome was manufactured and sold by ILFORD Imaging Switzerland GmbH which went bankrupt and was dissolved between 2011 and 2013. Recently, surviving factions of Ilford, specifically, ILFORD Imaging Europe GmbH, announced a new digital based Ilfochrome product as part of their Photo Inkjet family of products.

These Ilfochrome branded “Photo Panels” require the use of a Dye Sublimation printer (from a digital file) to create a print that is then heat pressed onto the back of a wood or metal based panel to create the final product. This process, while unique, cannot be remotely compared to the original Ilfochrome product discussed as part of the PBS Newshour Weekend story.

Personally, I’m disappointed that Ilford would malign Ilfochrome by coopting the original brand name to introduce a new product not remotely related to the original. It only creates confusion and reeks of a certain desperation hoping to recapture the success of the original product, a product Ilford failed to market into photography’s digital revolution.

I hope those who see the PBS NewsHour story enjoy it and I welcome your comments and questions.

Emulation: Musings on a Guy from Florida

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When learning something new, particularly, something we desire to become good at, at some point, we emulate. For the novice, emulation is often a natural response to inspiration, being moved by someone else’s mastery of the subject we’re interested in. Sports and celebrities come most immediately to mind. Gatorade made an iconic commercial, Be Like Mike, which celebrated emulating Michael Jordon, one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

But, my interest here (go figure) is photography.

In 1995, I took a photography workshop based out of Page, Arizona with an emphasis on slot canyons. We were a group of fifteen enthusiasts, intent on improving our craft. There was one notable exception, a guy from Florida, named Steve. Steve had a singular vision: to make photographs of slot canyons he’d already seen. Tops on his list were replicas of images made by one of the instructors!

Steve was a chain smoking, nervous, generally nice guy. In the evenings he proudly related stories of discovering photographs (in books or online) that triggered him into emulation mode. His inspired mission: to replicate the photograph. To place his tripod in the same three holes as the original. To compose the image in edge-to-edge complicity. If the image was made recently (and still possible) Steve could drive 3,000 miles straight across the country to capture it. And, once made (or not), he’d drive right back.

Steve has stuck with me. It’s a fun, if over-the-top, anecdote for discussing photographic growth. I believe this discussion is more important than ever because the current culture of photography is locked in emulation overdrive. From Lightroom presets to YouTube how-tos to step-by-step online guides explaining where, when, and how to find a certain place and take a certain photograph, we’re inundated with information that often lacks growth-oriented perspective.

On top of all this, our social media dominated lives constantly tease a near manic desire for self-affirmation. Unchecked, our egos can crave “likes” as fervently as the air we need to breathe. When entangled by this mindset, the easiest path to garner a respectable quota of “likes” is to emulate someone else’s work. This is rampant on the Internet. Something goes viral and the copycats quickly rise.

I understand the temptation. I’m not always above feeling a few pangs of jealousy when I see a “been-there, done-that” style of photograph receiving 1000’s of Instagram likes while I struggle to earn 100. And I know my early days included emulating photographers including Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Joseph Holmes, Jack Dykinga, and others. My compositions often channeled their styles, not my own.

Emulation’s dark side, quirkily represented by Steve, is the risk of falling into a chasm or stylistic conformity and creative dissonance. Working within a medium you love but expressing that love (intentionally or unintentionally) in a style that isn’t your own carries an emotional price: a growing awareness that what you do rings false. Slowly, a creeping sense of dissatisfaction builds inside you. Doubts arise. The experience scale tips from fun to frustration. You start to fret, feel yourself drifting sideways, listing. You brood in indecision, slide into self-medication, culminating in the embrace of the ever-popular Tortured Artist Syndrome (TAS™). Maybe it’s not so dramatic but, whatever the descent, it ultimately ends up with one outcome: you give up. Yes, those seduced into and trapped by emulation’s grip will lose interest and quit. What held promise to infuse your life with richness becomes an abandoned wayside station in your life’s rearview mirror.

While I didn’t stay in touch with Steve, I’m 99.9% certain, unless he experienced a creative self-breakthrough, his photographic interests are an indiscernible speck in his rearview mirror.

I’d like to believe most of us don’t want to end up like Steve, stuck in a cycle of emulation. But it happens. We do get stuck. We hit a wall. We know we need something more. It may not necessarily be an emulation issue. All sorts of issues lurk in the shadows of creative self-growth.

A number of ideas, both old and new, permeate my thoughts here. They pertain as much to me as to anybody. Too much to include in this post. So, more to come.

Gifted vs. Talented: A Philosophical Question

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Zion National Park: 2015 Plein Air Invitational Poster

Last week featured the Plein Air Invitational here at Zion National Park. In past years, I’ve largely ignored the proceedings choosing to focus, instead, on my photography as the week is usually punctuated by fall color. But, the featured artist’s image on the literature (accompanying this post) caught my attention. The painting of Johnson Mountain, by Colorado artist, Michelle Condrat, is composed as if standing right outside my front door. That familiarity prompted me to attend Michelle’s painting demonstration which led to an experience that really drives the focus of this post.

Arriving early, I caught the tail end of a Portland based painter’s, James McGrew’s, demonstration. His impressionistic painting of fall trees and the tall spires above the West Temple Basin were exceptional and I lingered, both enjoying and wincing at a variety of onlooker’s comments and questions. But Jeff’s measured responses resonated with me. I felt a certain kinship in his explanations and the approach I strive for in my own photography.

At one point, a rather gregarious older gentlemen asked, “So, when did you know you had the gift?” Jeff’s face (and probably mine) contorted briefly and then he regained his composure, smiled, and said to the effect, “Well, I’m not sure it is so much a gift. It’s actually taken a lot of time and work to be able to do what I’m doing here today.”

I couldn’t agree more. There seems to be two tracks of thought when assessing the talents of artists. It’s either a gift (usually inferred as God given) or a cultivated talent. In the past, I might’ve ignored the “gifted” perspective but now I find its pervasiveness problematic. To be “gifted” implies a special acumen has been bestowed to you, an absolute feature of your self. It suggests a certain divination, that, somehow, you are uniquely special. And it implies some people are gifted while others aren’t.

I reject this. Twenty plus years of experience informs me differently.

I now believe, fervently, we all are born with innate talent. The real challenge of life is in figuring out what our innate talents are and then orchestrating our lives to nurture, grow, and realize those talents. Often, individual talents will fly in the face of cultural norms or expectations, and, sadly, they’re too often squelched. What’s more, many talents may appear completely mundane when, in fact, they are essential to a healthy society.

How many innately talented moms, cooks, teachers, coordinators, machinists and, yes, artists have the fulfillment of their lives cut short by burying those talents in the roles, expectations and responsibilities a rigid society puts upon them? How many education insitutions actually strive to discover innate talent versus teaching to conformity and achievement goals?

So much human talent is, simply, wasted, destined to evaporate like virga on a hot desert plain.

Modern social and neurological sciences have become keenly interested in talent and its relationship to well being and success in life. The key? Time. It takes time to discover your talents. It takes nurturing. And the time needed begins in childhood. Children need time to daydream, to play, to explore, to be bored. To learn how to be with themselves. To have actual human interactions with other kids, not immersion or distraction in digital devices. They, and we, need to interact, intimately.

As an only child adopted by older parents, I now realize I was given the gift of time in childhood. I was allowed, forced even, to explore my home, my neighborhood, my environment. There are distinct memories where my self-awareness, my understanding of my presence in the world, were profound, mystic like in clarity. Fully engaged and present, I felt my life belonged to something greater and sensed I had some unique part to play in it. That, to me, is the discovery of self in a positively human vein, the realization that you are unique and may have something (a talent) to offer the world.

Now, as a remote parent to a teenage daughter living in a digital world, I struggle with the challenge of helping her understand the necessity of time, the need to gift it to yourself, to create the breathing room to really discover who you are, what you love, what you might become.

Imagine a world where talent, its discovery and development, is a resource valued as much as water or energy.

That would be time well spent.

Ilford on verge of bankruptcy. Again.

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According to this Google Translated swissinfo.ch article, Ilford Switzerland has run into financial difficulties and could be on the verge of bankruptcy. Apparently they were unable to pay their employees during the month of June. I confirmed the news with a local source. And I should note that Ilford Photo, maker of traditional black and white photographic supplies, is not affected. Oh, the irony.

With an open Ilfochrome chemistry order that, if not fulfilled, leaves me high and dry with tens of thousands of dollars worth of Ilfochrome paper, this news is very disturbing. And, to twist the knife a little more, I use Ilford’s Galerie Prestige for digitally-based print making which is best-in-class ink jet paper.

I’ve been told a chemistry run was completed and that it should be shipping out so I’ll hold out hope. Beyond that, let’s hope Ilford can work something out to help secure its viability a little longer.

Hello Bend, Oregon

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2350 NW Lemhi Pass

It’s never easy to say goodbye to one phase of life and hello to a new one. But that is what 2350 NW Lehmi Pass represents. Starting in June. A new life, in a new home, in a new town, in a new state. Athletically, artistically and aesthetically inclined people. Great bakeries. River trails. Very friendly and seemingly supportive people. I’ll spend some time getting acclimated, doing a little photography, supporting my daughter in a new stage of our relationship and dreaming up whatever is next. Exciting scary. Scary exciting.

I will miss my friends and the Bay Area but the door will always be open for visits. And I’ll actually have a guest room to welcome you.

I know this is my right path forward. Hopefully, in time, those I love will wholeheartedly agree.

Some great films that actually used film.

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And some of the best films of the year were actually, in the old-fashioned literal sense, films, brought to us by the chemical transformation of strips of stuff rather than the mathematical manipulation of strings of code.

Love this observation by A.O. Scott highlighting his favorite films of 2012 for the NY Times.

In fairness, I’m not trying to dig on digital but its popularity, as with digital photography, necessarily means it’s become a medium filled the good, the bad, the ugly and the horrific. Filmmakers who chose to stay with traditional film-related processes have clear artistic intent and this year they seem to have delivered some stellar films. As Scott later says “…maybe technological means are, finally, less important than artistic ends”.

Amen.

Own a cell phone? Read this.

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Two days ago while out on a walk, I neared a 4-stop intersection where a woman was crossing with her dog. An approaching car, while going slow, did not stop. At the last moment, the woman lunged back with her dog averting senseless harm, even tragedy. The woman in the car was on her cell phone.

Then tonight, while driving home, a woman on a cell phone was crossing in a crosswalk. It was dusk, hard to see, and she wore dark clothing. The car in front of me, going nearly 40 miles an hour, did not see her. I reacted slamming my beams on high and flashing them repeatedly. The flashing caused the woman to look up which paused her as the car zoomed by within a hair’s breadth. It was so close I’d clenched my entire body in fear of the possibility.

Once calm and home, I contemplated the events and drew the following two conclusions:

#1: Wake the f**k up people! Lift your heads up and be present. The world on your screen is no substitute for the world about you. Don’t learn that lesson through tragedy, especially now during the holidays.

#2: I believe in the web of life. I believe in the interconnectedness of things and that our individual actions while small (and sometimes large) have rippling effects in the universe. I’m honored to have had the opportunity this evening to prevent a series of ripples that would have caused pain, grief, doubt, anxiety, all the things we generally prefer to avoid in our daily lives. Think of all the people and situations that would have been adversely affected had either of those woman been struck. How about the effects on the driver? When you contemplate such a thing, it’s incredibly profound. And humbling. Because you realize that cultivating such awareness might mean you do something as simple as rephrase a text, make someone laugh, hold a door open, or save a life.

Happy Holidays. Be safe.