Going very oldskool

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If you know me at all, you know that I have a thing for everything old. I drive a ’97 Volvo, play a huge Epiphone jazzbox, my cameras are not the newest latest and my Macs are both from 2011.

So when the last update for Lightroom and Photoshop hit, I felt like back in my videogame days. Back then I had to update my computer frequently to be able to play new games. More RAM, a more powerful graphics card, you name it. Needless to say, those games were absolutely necessary. But when Adobe’s updates appeared in the Creative Cloud app and the need to upgrade from High Sierra to at least Mojave to be able to install them, I asked myself whether I really need that (given that the update to Mojave included patching and flashing and changing the graphics card to one that night sacrifice the boot screen, but hopefully not brightness control, vital to display calibration).

Turns out, I don’t. With the D300 and D7100, Lightroom 5 was good enough and that I had sitting on the shelf ever since I subscribed to the photography plan. But what about Photoshop? When I looked at the books by Harold Davis, Jeff Schewe, Martin Evening and Vincent Versace (which are permanently on my desk), I realized that those books were written using Photoshop CS5 or even CS4 so everything I had learned form those could be done using an older version of Photoshop.

My very dear friend Jörg Wüstkamp gave me a copy of Photoshop CS5 for my birthday, so I was all set. I even had a version of Lightroom 3, so with LR3 released in June 2010 and PS CS5 released in April of the same year, my 2011 Macs were very happy and authentic and working with the D300 files felt like 11 years back. Which will keep getting better once I get my hands on a D700 which is the plan.

This doesn’t mean we all have to go back to old software and I didn’t have a problem with Adobe’s subscription model. I was just so happy to be freed of this need to have the latest version of everything Adobe, a pressure I put on myself. Which meant I was also able to take that pressure away by finding out what I really need. All I am left with now is what everybody back in 2010/2011 using Photoshop CS5 felt: When will CS6 come out?

The Making of “The Way Home”

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The original shot out of camera, taken at 9:20 in the morning

A few days ago I woke up to the sun rising and still some considerable ground fog over the field. I grabbed my camera, the dogs and my wife and we set out for a walk.

Only about half a mile form our house I found this frame. It had foreground, background, leading lines, all the goodies. Not that I thought consciously about any of those at the time, but obviously it’s all there. The light from teh rising sun coming from the right spreading over the grass on both sides of the road, the fog between the trees in the distance, I knew this was going to be good.

Although I didn’t have the 35mm prime with me I would have preferred for this, the 18-10 did nicely. I took a couple more shots just to make sure I got what I wanted and continued on for some more promising fog images.

Later in Lightroom I decided to work on this one and did all the basic adjustments in Lightroom and went on to NIK Silve Efex Pro 2 for the black and white conversion and further adjustment. And that’s when my personla perception of reality kicked in.

Something in the mist, the light scross the grass and the shadows under the trees must have triggered something in me and the image got darker and gloomier with every setting I changed.

I have been suffering from anxiety disorder, panic attacks and depression for the better part of my life, so my perception of any given scene will be very different form what you see / feel. I feel more or less constantly threatened and I have to deal with fear pretty much every day.

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The final image

So the image got very dark, the fog in the distance should barely show the trees standing there so including the fact that the road slighty bends to the right behind the trees on the right so we can’t see where it is actually going, we are following a road we have no idea of where it is leading and it doesn’t seem to be very encouraging to move on.

I don’t see the image is absolutely gloomy. At least we are on a path, probably moving somewhere, wherever that might be. Looking at the title, we will be going home and I hope home will not be a misty, dark place. That’s what the past has been often enough. But looking at what is right in front of us, that’s not too bad. It has some light we’re not sure of where it’s coming from, there is no source. But the road seems reliable, we can see for some distance. The clear view and the crisp details of the close surroundings, the now, will be moving along with us as we move further down the road. Somewhere in here is hope in all this darkness.

This image also is a good example for my idea of what needs to be in good images: reality and truth. My reality as I perceive it is of course heavily influenced by my experiences of fear and anxiety, but also the hope that keeps me moving along. This perception leads me to my personal truth in my images. This might be the underlying sadness, but also the delicate but never absent feeling of hope. If I can make this truth felt, I have done well. If you can see this truth in my images and can connect to that, you will love them and will never be tired of looking at them.

Why This Image Was So Important. To Me.

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“Perfect Imperfect” (Germany, 2020)

About two months ago, I was walking around the town of Brüggen with the dogs and I captured a couple of frames. With those of the posts against the sky I had a feeling, there could be a keeper among them. You know when you feel there is something there, you might not exactly know what yet, but there is definitely something of interest.

At the time, I “only” had a Nikon Coolpix P7000 with me, which beats the iPhone, but it could have been better. After printing it on an A4 sheet though, the resolution proved to be good enough. At 3648×2736 pixels, I could print at about 9×12 inches at 300dpi. But enough about the technicalities.

This image is not important to me because it proved I can take the P7000 with me without having to be afraid I will be disappointed. It is important because I needed an image like that right now to feel good about where I am going with my photography.

I have been making photographs of nature most of the time and looking at my website, most people would probably classify me as a landscape photographer. But looking at those images (and I do look at them often because on the wall I am facing when sitting at my desk, are about 20 of them) I was asking myself what it is I am looking at. What did I see there? What was the thing that connected all of them? And for a while, I felt I was getting closer to an answer and strangely enough during that time I was almost afraid of making new photographs as if this could disturb the process of finding out what my images were really about.

But then in May, I found the image above, which I eventually named “Perfect Imperfect”. And it sat there for a couple of weeks before I got to edit and print it. For one thing, I found out that I really need to print my images to feel I am done working with them. And then I felt that this image for the time being, for right now, best represents what I am as a human being and a photographer (totally avoiding the a-word. I have talked about why I don’t feel comfortable calling myself an “artist” before).

The sky looks like marble or an angry sea or just as what it is – dramatic clouds. And the post, as strong as it seems, just doesn’t hold up against the sky, something nature created literally out of thin air. So the wires enter the frame but leave it again right away like the human-made portion of this image just knows it can’t compare to the marble/wave/sky. I like how Chip Forelli divides his landscape images into three categories: “No Man”, “Hint Of Man” and “Hand Of Man” (see these at chipforelli.com). I would put “Perfect Imperfect” into the “Hint Of Man” category and I will keep photographing in those three, maybe less in the “Hand Od Man” category just because I don’t like it that much.

There is no doubt mankind has achieved many great things and we can be creative and just plain wonderful. But apart from that, we can also be the complete opposite, we as a whole seem to forget ever so often that nature is where we came from and where we will go back to. That it is there where we are all connected. That every photograph of nature is a selfie really. And so the images from the “Hint Of Man” category will mostly show us what we really are and what we think we have to be. The sky is who we are and the post is the mark we think we must leave.

It is exciting to see the path ahead clearer now and to realize why I love the photographs I make.

Feel free to trash your zoom lens

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Pretty much from the beginning, I fell in love with prime lenses. A month after I bought my first DSLR, I also bought the infamous 35mm f1.8G and never looked back. I added the 50mm and 85mm f1.8G and for some time even had a Samyang 10mm f2.8, but that was never too much in use.

I was totally happy with those because they were sharp, affordable and there was something about the simplicity of them which I liked.

When I bought a used Nikon D300, it came with an 18-200mm zoom lens. And that was when I got lazy. It is a great lens and I like the convenience of carrying just this one as opposed to the other three, which wouldn’t even cover the whole range. Originally I had just thought it would be nice to have something wider than the 35mm again and to use the long end also to get that shot of the tree on the other side of the lake without cropping 80% of the photograph.

But it made you work less. And think less. I just stood there and zoomed in and out. And I didn’t have to be so aware anymore of what I was doing. If I missed a frame, I didn’t have to go back. I just turned around and zoomed in.

The other day out in the field I noticed that the VR wasn’t working anymore and something was in my viewfinder that shouldn’t be there. Two flat cables inside the camera had come off and were visible as a blurry shadow in the images.

So I had to go all prime again. Which was beautiful. On a hike about a week ago I just took the 35mm (and the 50 as a backup, but I never used it) and I enjoyed that I had to think and move again. And the photograph I liked the most from that day (the one above) wasn’t even cropped that much. I just wanted it to be square and took off some of the sky, which didn’t have anything to do with focal length.

On the next hike two days ago, I made it “50mm day” and it changed everything. I had to move even more and I noticed I later switched from trying to fit the widest view into the frame to just finding views with a narrower angle of view. Something like in the image below.

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Today I tried the 85mm version but it didn’t work out that well, which means I will have to practice with that lens more. I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to make a landscape photograph with a portrait lens, which will then make it a landscape lens.

But I do like how taking just one focal length along teaches me to see different, find subject matter I can work with that particular lens, be creative with it. It will be less frustrating when I have the “wrong” lens with me and will give me new ideas when I am out with all of them.

Nevertheless, I will have the 18-200 repaired 😉

Nine To Five

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I am in the process of re-editing some images for a publication submission and once I started that I realized how different this is from what I usually do.
Usually, I take on one image at a time, it takes however long it takes and I end up printing the photograph because only then I feel like I am done.
The images I have selected for the publication have been shot in the last six years. My workflow and abilities have of course changed over the years and so it is only logical that I start over again. It will be interesting to see how different the outcome is.
It is just strange to do a process like this, which is creative, on so many images in a row. I have more than enough time – it would be okay to be done in June – but I want this out of the door sooner, as I have a lot of other things I need to do (like those 12 short stories I need to finish before July). But I also don’t want this to become routine. All those images deserve the same dedication and mindfulness, from the first to the last. I think all I need for this is to be aware of what I am doing. When I realize I am doing something too quickly or that I am skipping something, I should take a break and ask myself whether it is wise to go on, take a break or call it a day.
I remember I have made the mistake of publishing work too early and then realized after that there was still work to do on that image. Something that bothered me, especially as it was usually just because I wanted the image to be out on social media soon. The temptation of instant gratification …
I think I need to find a balance between approaching this like a regular job and feeling like I can only work when everything is all set in a very special way, the stars line up and the red wine just the perfect temperature.
Just play a Kenny Burrell album and get on with it.

The Making of “X Marks The Spot”

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“X Marks The Spot” (France, 2019)

In September last year Christina, the dogs and I took the Volvo o Normandy for two weeks. First to Sassetot-le-Mauconduit, some 30k east of Étretat, where Claude Monet painted among others “Stormy Sea in Étretat”.

Later we moved on to Lindbergh Plage, 45k south of Cherbourg on the Cotentin peninsula.The clouds over the sea in Normandy were always spectacular and on the first evening in Sassetot I already encountered the most beautiful light when the sun was setting on the white cliffs at Les Petites Dalles and at the same time a storm came rolling in from the east.

One morning at Lindbergh Plage we came back from the beach and followed this path through the dunes.

At this moment, I wasn’t thinking about the croissant and coffee breakfast to be had back at the house. I wasn’t thinking about the fight our dog Leah had had with another dog running free on the beach. I thought about the bug white clouds slowly moving over the dunes. I was thinking about the path I didn’t want to end. Maybe I wasn’t thinking at all.

P.S.: I am still reading the Edward Weston daybooks. I just didn’t want this to be the only topic on my blog, so I’ll post about my reflections on Weston frequently, but not only about them.

Volvo December

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This winter we didn’t have too man nights with subzero temperatures, but one morning last December I found the car covered in ice, which had an interesting texture. I had my Nikon P7000 with me and grabbed a couple of images. For some reason I had the ISO set to 6400, but the grain added to the texture. The sky was overcast and somehow I got these gritty colors.

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Hood Ice

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“Hood Ice Mono” (Germany 2020), shot on iPhone

 I do love natural shapes and forms, usually clouds, trees, sand, water and such. This morning, after a cold night I found this on the hood of our beloved Volvo. The iPhone was all I had on me, so phone it was. I also like that you would probably not guess what it is if the photo was shown without any information. Below another shot in color. “Hood Ice Mono” was edited in Lightroom and Color Efex Pro, the colored image in Lightroom only.

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“Hood Ice Color” (Germany 2020), shot on iPhone

 

 

Reflection on “Romantic Mexico” Aug. 2 to Aug. 8, 1923

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“La Troneta” (Spain, 2016)

The part I read today was the description of the passage to Mexico by Tina, Chandler, and Edward on board the S.S. Colima between Juli 30 and August 5, 1923.

“At last we are Mexico bound, after months of preparation, after such endless delays that the proposed adventure seemed but a conceit of the imagination never actually to materialize.”

I can remember the feeling, it was the same for me when I left home for the first time for Lanzarote in 2002 to live there for 18 months. Although you are packing buying the ticket, putting all your belongings you won’t take with you in storage – it took boarding the plane to “begin to feel the actuality of this voyage.”.

Weston was traveling by ship, a Mexican ship. And he loved it. Just as I came to understand and at least tolerate the “inefficiency “according to our standards” just as Weston did with the Mexicans. “It is a relief to escape from that efficiency which makes for mechanized movements, unrelieved drabness. I have seen that confirmed in other countries later – Turkey, Ireland, Thailand and of course Madagascar. I had the warmest welcome in the poorest places.

August 4: “A half-moon half-hidden by heavy clouds – sculptured rocks, black, rising from silvered waters – shriek of whistle and rasp of chain; 1:00 AM and we anchored in the harbor of Mazatlán, my first foreign port.”

To experience things for the first time. I regret how many things I did for the first time and can’t remember that moment anymore. I had a camera back then, I always had something I could take pictures with, but just as a notebook, a journal, I didn’t use any of those regularly. I know there is a journal called “Arnhem Days” about what happened when I lived in the Netherlands trying to get into the conservatory to study jazz guitar. And I guess there are some things jotted down somewhere about those months on the Canary Islands. I’ll get back to that when I find them.

“Did I visualize what I was to see in my first Mexican port? This is hard to say today …” Again, Weston’s style of writing appeals to me. It is not so much that I could see what he saw, but I can feel what he felt, because I felt the same way, when I arrived at a new place.

“Later, exploring the city streets at night, we found life both gay and sad – sharp clashes of contrasting extremes, but always life – vital, intense, black and white, never grey.” – Edward Weston

This is like the first night on Naxos. I went out wearing my Ireland rugby jersey and met a couple, he Irish and she Finnish, who praised my Irish accent, just as some guy at a gas station in Sweden years before that claimed I sound like upstate New York. Trying the echo again and again in those parks in Oslo late at night, the Holmenkollen in the distance before the car broke down just before we could make it to Arhus for Christmas day. A quick beer on 55th Street with a friend who came over from Jersey just for that, but distances meant nothing, we traveled the earth in those days.

And again now. Don’t get me wrong, images are everywhere. I always said that and I stand by it. But there is something so very special about going places you have never been to. That blank page staring at you, daring to fill it with something, anything. If you just dare to take that bus, catch that plane, get on that boat. And live as desperately as you can manage.

August 6: “I was tempted in Mazatlán to “go tourist” with my camera, making “snaps” of street scenes – even doing Tina in her grand coach backed by a ruin. But yesterday I made the first negatives other than matter-of-fact records – negatives with intention. A quite marvelous cloud form tempted me – a sunlit cloud which rose from the bay to become a towering white column.”

Needless to say, any of us would have shot a lot more, on the ship as well as ashore. I always carry my iPhone of course and when I can a Nikon P7000, which gives me more features and of course, since it is digital we all have to admit that at some point we went “spray and pray”. I do not like that we, in general, take way too many pictures and if you ever stand in front of me and block my view because you need to take a picture with an iPad, somebody’s going to get hurt.

But to have the ability to take an image wherever you find it with a device that fits in your pocket has its advantages. I have made iPhone images I really like and there are times for the phone and times for the “big boy cameras” (as Harold Davis calls them). There is no reason to dislike any of them. On the other end of the spectrum, I really like the feel of heavy cameras like the D300.

I also think that today (partly because of all the devices and their features at our disposal) we don’t need to separate this “going tourist” and being serious as a photographer anymore. And even though I can feel a deeper meaning about my work, I don’t want to take myself too seriously all the time.

Weston arrived at the harbor of Manzanillo on August 5 and went through customs “though not without much palavering, suspicious glances at my battery of lenses, chemicals and personal effects” and prepared to move on to Tacubaya and again he felt something I totally could identify with. Like the first evening on Lanzarote. Not settled in yet, not even the bags were completely unpacked. There were things to do like all the paperwork to get the residencia, get registered for a tex number. But in the evening I was sitting overlooking the laguna and the sunset over the ocean and there were three layers of clouds, each in a different shade of dark red and purple, I just couldn’t believe I was there, actually there. And I couldn’t have put it better than Weston did:

“But it was more than the music – the hospitality – the blue sea – which broke my resistance: I knew this day marked an end – and a beginning.” – Edward Weston

Reflection on “Discussion on Definition”

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“2:30 in Westport” (Ireland, 2015)

In April of 1923, Weston describes a discussion he had with Johan Hagemeyer, who visited him in Glendale where Weston lived at the time. This discussion started when Hagemeyer showed Weston some prints he had made and Weston said they were lacking in definition, “an inexcusable fault when it comes to photographing modern architecture and machinery, even the mood could be better interpreted with sharp – clean lines.”

Hagemeyer claimed that was the way he saw things and he must render them as he sees them. Still, Weston answered that “photography has certain inherent qualities which are only possible with photography – one being the delineation of detail – so why not take advantage of this attribute?”

“Why limit yourself to what your eyes see when you have such an opportunity to extend your vision?” – Edward Weston

He goes on to compare a portrait done by Hagemeyer to one of Bertha Wardell that he took and Hagemeyer agrees that in that case (a portrait of his sister) “searching definition would have unveiled and exposed the very suffering and strife I have tried to portray.” But Hagemeyer also says that “in some other prints I show you – it seems almost necessary that there should not be so much revealed.” (This is of course not what Weston had been told by Stieglitz “Nothing must be unconsidered, there must be complete release.” And “A maximum of detail with a maximum of simplification”.)

The discussion continues:

“If in a certain mood why should I not interpret that state through my picture and not merely photograph what is before me? In such instances, the use of diffusion would aid me.” – Johan Hagemeyer

“Yes, it (diffusion) would aid you – to cloud and befog the real issue and prevent you from telling the truth about the life towards which your lens is pointing. If you wish to interpret why not use a medium better suited to interpretation or subjective expression – or – let someone else do it. Photography is an objective means to an end – and as such is unequaled. It comes finally to the question: For what purpose should the camera be used? And I believe you have misused it, along with many others – including myself!” – Edward Weston

A couple of things come to mind reading this. Weston does not accept diffusion or blur at all. Not in the images of modern architecture or machinery and not in portraits. Well, the year is 1923 and it was just in the year before that Weston had met Stieglitz and had taken the ARMCO photographs. All detail was for him the way to go. But to call using diffusion misusing the camera (even if he admits to having done so himself) seems a bit rich.

Diffusion or blur is used to separate the subject matter from the background and is more than acceptable today. Vincent Versace went even further saying that only what you focus the lens on and what lies on that plane is sharp, the rest of the image can be acceptable, but you will never have everything in focus. So the majority of any image is out of focus, even if it is barely detectable, even if it just exists as physical / optical fact. But according to Mr. Versace, we should be probably dealing with the pretty in the blur at least the same as with the in-focus parts of the image. I guess one should consider this as a concept, but as long as you don’t live in the world of 2% (meaning these kinds of things will improve the quality of your image by this small amount), this should not really have an impact on your workflow.

Also, should we always use anything that extends our vision just because we can? I am with Hagemeyer on this one, at least looking at it from a 21st-century point of view. Stieglitz himself told Weston about how he “broke every photographic law, optics included” and now it seems he is setting up new rules himself. Sure it seems to him that using diffusion as a step back towards pictorialism. But to some extent, we can use techniques or concepts from the past if we achieve something with it we can call our personal vision. If that is what Hagemeyer saw, I see no reason to tell him he can’t do that, do whatever he feels is necessary to make his image feel right to him.

Looking at definition, we could talk about sharpness, depth of field and – at least in this day and age – about resolution. I think Hagemeyer and Weston were talking about sharpness as a concept, but depth of field would be the technical aspect of how to achieve that. Just as Stieglitz put his lens “a foot from a sitter’s face”, Weston was pushing the technical limits of the view camera. When photographing the famous bell peppers, he needed to get close to the object, which posed a problem as the lens would only go to f/64 and with a view camera that close apparently, it wasn’t possible to get everything in focus. So Weston made his own stops which were basically pinhole. “Pepper 30”, the most iconic of the pepper photographs was shot at f/240 at a four to six-hour exposure.

I won’t discuss the resolution issue in-depth, as there (as in most everything I write about here), there is no right or wrong. I am perfectly happy with the 12.3MP D300 and the 24.1MP D7100. I don’t need more for the sizes I print and I am with Ted Forbes when he said that we all have cameras that were (when it comes to specs) better than anything Ansel Adams had. It is SO not about that.

The last point and one of the major points is reality. This has always been an interesting aspect of photography and any photographer should have thought about this at some point, I think.

Weirdly, for the longest time monochrome images in the newspapers were something we accepted as a representation of the real world, conveying additional information to news stories. Even when color TV was already a common thing, the newspaper images continued to be black and white.

And we do realize today that a photograph is not showing reality. There are so many aspects to a photograph that can change what the viewer takes away from it, even if you’re not editing it. And of course, the world is not just black and white or two-dimensional. So what about your image is real? What aspects of reality are represented in your work? How does the reality in yourself influence what is in your image? And what do you think about reality, to begin with?

Weston told Hagemeyer, that diffusion is clouding and befogging the real issue and prevented him from telling the truth. That photography is an objective means to an end. But he wasn’t simply recording reality. As quoted from Ben Maddow’s book “Edward Weston – His Life and Photographs”:

“Weston’s power, to use his very words, lay “in his ability to re-create his subject in terms of its basic reality and present this re-creation in such a form that the spectator feels that the is seeing not just a symbol for the object, but the thing itself revealed for the first time … a heightened sense of reality … that reveals the vital essences of things.”

This goes back to the question I said two paragraphs earlier – What do you think about reality, to begin with? Reality doesn’t mean the same to everybody, or this analysis would make no sense. And it does. One’s reality has a lot to do with perception. Perception beyond the optical capabilities of the human eye. It is what we as intelligent and emotional beings can do with everything we experience in this life. And don’t let anyone tell you there is just one truth, one reality, one life.

The rest of the entry is mostly a wonderful description of an evening at a greek cafe near Los Angeles Street where they went after visiting the Philharmonic. The way he describes it reminds me of similar descriptions Jack Kerouac wrote. The negro droning on the saxophone along with another picking the banjo, the pickpocketing waitresses, the sailor prizefighter having them feel his muscles and relating his life history. Even in writing, he was painting a picture full of detail.