Craft Matters

New Ilfochrome – Maples at Twilight

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Ilfochrome Print - Maples at Twilight

I’ve spent much of my free time the last week in the darkroom working on some new Ilfochrome prints. This iPhone photo shows a new print, Maples at Twilight, which I made during my recent trip to Zion National Park.

I was hiking out a side canyon on the Upper East Side near sunset and saw these maples at their peak of color, glowing in the soft light. With darkness coming it was something of a mad scramble to find the desired composition. The needed position was high of a slippery slope, my own feet and tripod legs dug deep into sand to prevent any camera movement. Once set up, the exposure with appropriate depth-of-field was ~15 seconds. But a gentle persistent wind was blowing and by the time it began to settle, my exposure had increased to 45 seconds. Frustrated, with my legs hurting from the awkward position I was in, I managed 3 exposures holding my breath each time hoping the wind would take a cue. The first exposure was abandoned after 20 seconds because of a sudden gust. The next two exposures suffered only minor whispers, and while there is some movement in the leaves in the print, it feels an acceptable tradeoff against the strong sharp lines of the tree trunks and branches. And, of course, the wonderful palette of color.

Very few people associate my fall color images with Zion and I’m just fine with that.

Henri didn’t Crop

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Henri Cartier-Bresson on cropping:

About cropping? Uh, I said in that forward, we have to have a feeling for the geometry of the relation of shapes, like in any plastic medium. And I think that you place yourself in time, we’re dealing with time, and with space. Just like you pick a right moment in an expression, you pick your right spot, also. I will get closer, or further, there’s an emphasis on the subject, and if the relations, the interplay of lines is correct, well, it is there. If it’s not correct it’s not by cropping in the darkroom and making all sorts of tricks that you improve it. If a picture is mediocre, well it remains mediocre. The thing is done, once for all.

I love Cartier-Bresson’s work. Hugely inspirational. But, I fundamentally disagree. The world is not fitted to a certain aspect ratio. I don’t crop a lot of my images but I do consciously choose what I believe to be the strongest composition (where the interplay of lines and forms feel strongest). And I recognize that the aspect ratio and angle of view of my lens may provide too much coverage from my chosen near/far perspective. But I would never compromise near/far perspective to fill the frame. So, when I print, I simply crop to remove any extra coverage I didn’t want in the image to begin with. In my mind, that’s not a trick. That’s craft applied.

Read the full article translated from a 1958 interview — it’s great.

Ilfochrome – The Final Run

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Ilfochrome Paper - The Final Run

And there it is. My batch of the final run of Ilfochrome, direct from Switzerland. 41 boxes. 2,000 sheets. Delivered nearly a year later from original date of purchase. The expiration date is July, 2016. Frozen, the paper will last 10+ years with only moderate color shifts. Assuming, of course, you’ll still be able to get the chemistry. Prior to this run, I’d never purchased paper that wasn’t under a year from its expiration date. So this is a pleasant upside surprise.

A few people have questioned my sanity over the years sticking with a medium that is “outdated”, “restrictive”, “unmanageable”, all comments largely related to the developments in digital photography. I could rebut arguments point by point but the validation, for me, rests in the eyes of friends, colleagues, even strangers who experience the prints displayed in my studio. There’s an “ah-hah” moment. An understanding of the possibility of a medium crafted with respect for its inherent characteristics and limitations.

I hope over the coming months, I’m able to do this medium its final justice.

High Sierra Cascades

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High Sierra Cascades

On a day (Black Friday) when people across the country are tromping through shopping malls, I post an alternative view. Within this image, I can still hear the cascading water, smell the pine-infused wind, breathe the chill mountain air. Feelings of peace and contemplation return. The water… is life. An essential element of our universe. Such reflections become an invocation of power greater than our individual selves. Power that unites us.

Stark contrast to people fighting in line at your local Walmart.

Death Valley Star Trails

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Death Valley Star Trails

My annual return trips from Zion are usually a boring 10 hour drive through Las Vegas, Barstow, Bakersfield, and the San Joaquin Valley. But this year, I decided to mix it up with a nighttime romp through Death Valley and the opportunity to make a Star Trail photograph.

Standing below sea level at 3 am in windless silence, I could hear (or feel) my highly caffeinated blood coursing through my body — definitely a bigger-than-thou experience.

I was hoping to make a Star Trail image around the Stovepipe Wells sand dunes but memory had tricked me into thinking they were closer to the road than I’d remembered. So I drove past Stovepipe and up the western incline getting a valley vantage point that formed a nice anchoring cradle to the circular trails I desired.

I added this photo and a couple others to spice up the Star Trail tutorial.

Mobile Photography as Art?

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Digital Photography Review’s new Connect site, which focuses on mobile photography, ran a recent article “Mobile photography finds a place in the fine arts world.” The article, especially its supporting photographs aren’t very compelling — urban hipster blah if you ask me. But, in fairness, Jon Burris, a gallery director with loose ties to Ansel Adams, who’s interviewed in the article, is recounted:

Burris compares the reluctance to accept smartphone photography as a valid art form to the same hesitation toward digital photography several years ago. Collectors once shied away from purchasing digital prints in favor of those made from film. Burris anticipates the same necessary learning curve for collectors as well as the general public to take mobile photography seriously, but expects that in the future, galleries like his won’t put so much emphasis on the medium, instead focusing on the art. He envisions a digital print of an image taken on an iPhone 4S hanging next to a silver gelatin print on gallery walls worldwide.

Some reasonable points but I principally disagree. Chosen medium (and its tools) are absolutely important in supporting an artist’s chosen path. And the medium of mobile photography is in its infancy. As a creative medium, it is grossly reliant on post-processing software with its myriad of instant filters and effects. So, with respect to medium, if your goal is to create work along the lines of an Ansel Adams or Paul Strand, you’re not going to do it using a mobile phone. Such distinctions should be acknowledged and celebrated, not homogenized.

But, as Burris said, to which I wholeheartedly agree, to determine mobile photography’s relevance to art we must focus on the art itself. Any validation of practitioners in the medium must really focus on the guiding question of what is art? Or more precisely, what is good art?

I certainly have my own opinions on this, but for fun, I decided to Google “What makes Art good?” and, among the list of results, focused on an article that sought answers from various California gallery owners and curators on this exact subject. A few answers that resonated:

Brian Gross, Brian Gross Fine Art, San Francisco: Art that is unique in conception and well executed.

Cheryl Haines, Haines Gallery, San Francisco: Clear intention, unwavering dedication, patience, perseverance, self awareness and the drive to make for yourself and no one else.

Marsea Goldberg, New Image Art, Los Angeles: Originality, representational of the time when it was created, passion, a frame of reference, freshness, intellectual content, and is uniquely identifiable as the work of that particular artist…

All of these quotes emphasize the importance of passionate dedication and conviction to pursue work that is self-expressive, creating a style that is reflective of the artist and can be recognized as so. It’s hard to argue with the notion that any photographer on an artistic path must be deeply personally committed and able to demonstrate a body of work reflective of that commitment.

Is such commitment possible in mobile photography? Certainly. Is such commitment present in today’s world of mobile photography? Very questionable.

I guess time will tell if Burris’ vision of iPhone 4S photographs hanging next to a silver gelatin prints on gallery walls worldwide will prevail.

I’m not holding my breath.

The Art of the Present

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Furthermore, the nostalgia cycles have become so short that we even try to inject the present moment with sentimentality, for example, by using certain digital filters to “pre-wash” photos with an aura of historicity. Nostalgia needs time. One cannot accelerate meaningful remembrance.

Lovely quote from Christy Wampole in this NY Times Article titled “How to Live Without Irony“. The quote crystallizes for me, my own reservations about Instagram. While I think the social relevance in the wide sharing and distribution of images is important, infusing artificial sentimentality and clouding historical perspective does more harm than good to our cultural emotional IQ.

Still more:

While we have gained some skill sets (multitasking, technological savvy), other skills have suffered: the art of conversation, the art of looking at people, the art of being seen, the art of being present.

I’ve always fervently believed in the importance of being present, yet see how much of my life and the way I’ve lived it in recent years (in part, due to technology), has actually weakened my ability to be present. Hopefully that awareness will help facilitate changes I hope to make in the coming year.

Bighorn Sheep

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Bighorn Sheep - Zion National Park

My favorite “even-toed ungulates” of Zion are the bighorn sheep. I was up canyon and up wind when rounded a bend and discovered this small band meandering across some higher terrain.

Bighorn sheep in Zion were lost to human encroachment in the 1950s only to be reintroduced in small numbers in 1973. But the re-introduced herd disappeared and the program was thought to be a failure. Then in the 1990s they were spotted again and recent biologist surveys has pegged their numbers well above 200 in and around the park.

On this recent trip alone, I encountered bighorns 4 times up different east-side canyons. And with properly bellowed “stupid human” noises you can even get them to pose for a picture.