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.
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
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.
As I am following the advice by Ansel Adams as quoted in my last post, I am basically reacting to what I read in Edward Weston’s daybooks (I try to read one entry each day and reflect on that). Sometimes it is directly related to what I am reading, sometimes I just ramble on about what popped up in my mind after having read the entry.
Today the entry was mainly about meeting Alfred Stieglitz in New York in 1922. There were some remarkable things Stieglitz said and altogether it reads like both handled it quite well. There was some praise from Stieglitz (and O’Keeffe) about the prints Weston brought, but not only praise. Although Weston seemed to handle the criticism very well (as we all should, as just praise might lead to feeling too comfortable at where you are and might keep you from pushing it further).
“I took my work to show Stieglitz. He laid it open to attack, and then discarded print after print, prints I loved. Yet I am happy, for I gained in strength, in fact strengthened my own opinion. I was ripe to change, was changing, yes changed, when I went to New York. I had shown my portfolio of photographs all over New York, had been showered with praise, which meant very little to me, for all the time I knew I was showing my past.” – Edward Weston
I was quite impressed by something Stieglitz said about how he broke technical rules for emotional reasons: “I have put my lens a foot form the sitter’s face because I thought when talking intimately one doesn’t stand ten feet away …” But let me put that in context:
“The struggle is to live an express life untouched by the ideas of neighbors and friends. After all we only know what we feel, and I have been unafraid to say what I feel. You see that in my work. I have broken every photographic law, optics included. I have put my lens a foot from sitter’s face because I thought when talking intimately one doesn’t stand ten feet away; and knowing that it takes time to get deep into the very innermost nature of matter, I have given exposures of several minutes stopped way down. You see my prints, the eye is able to wander all over them, finding satisfaction in every portion, the ear is given as much consideration as the nose, but it is a task, this desire to obtain detail and simplification at the same time.” – Alfred Stieglitz
Emotion comes before technicalities. Of course. It is why I decided to not frame my images anymore and to do nothing bigger than 13×19. So there is a chance for an intimate relationship to form between the viewer and the print. Is it possible that the size might overwhelm you? That a huge print might hide some imperfections even better than a small one? A huge print might intimidate you, might suggest greatness just because of size.
I also liked something Stieglitz mentioned about his attitude towards photography:
“A maximum of detail with a maximum of simplification.” – Alfred Stieglitz
That quote has been in my head all day. Even when I wasn’t thinking about what it means, it just sat there and I felt it. How full of meaning it was and at the same time carried a promise of freedom and fulfillment. I wonder how many months it will take for me to really take this in and understand it. Another one to be pondered is this:
“Nothing must be unconsidered, there must be complete release.” – Alfred Stieglitz
Of course this was about photography, but just consider what else this could be about …
One last bit Stieglitz left Weston with was “My last message to you is work, seek, experiment.” Which seems to be obvious, but can’t be repeated often enough along with assuring oneself that it really is that simple. It doesn’t seem that hard if you remember that you are a photographer, a human being, an artist (if you need that label) all the time. Every waking hour and maybe even in your dreams. Not only with camera in hand. I listen to photography-related podcasts while I drive, the last thing I read in bed at night is probably about photography and even if it isn’t, it is about some aspect of life and so at the end of the day, it will be about feelings and that means (for me) photography. Immerse yourself in photography in every way you can think of and eventually everything will fall into place. You do, see, feel, hear something and remember something else you did, saw, felt, heard maybe years ago and you can actually can hear it click as it finally makes sense even though at the time you might not have had the slightest idea what it was all about.
I leave you with an anecdote about something that happened in the summer of ’18:
I had been working with Harold Davis since September of ’17 when I offered to send him a print as a token of my gratitude for everything he had done for me. Here is what he wrote back:
The thought is very much appreciated.
When I was a young photographer in my twenties I was privileged to meet Ansel Adams at his home in Carmel Highlands along the Big Sur Coast of California. Ansel spent quite a bit of time with me, we spent some time together, he looked at many of my prints, showed me his darkroom, and we drank a bottle of whiskey together. Ansel was already very famous at that point, and in his seventies. We kept in touch, he invited me to a museum opening of his in New York (where I was living), and so on.
At some point in the next year I mailed him a couple of 20X24 prints I had made, thinking they would be a gift and a way to say Thank you. Ansel had an assistant mail them back to me, carefully packed, with a note thanking me for the thought, and saying he really didn’t have a good way to store all the work he was sent, and that he was sure I would have use for my own work better than he did.
So this was a good learning experience for me…”
It felt like the circle was complete and I was well on my way to be able to not just call Harold a mentor, but my friend. Which he still is today.
“Look at his photographs, look at them carefully, then look at yourselves – not critically, or with self depreciation, or any sense of inferiority. Read the material from his Daybooks and letters so carefully compiled, edited and associated with the photographs by Nancy Newhall. You might discover through Edward Weston’s work how basically good you are or might become. This is the way Edward would want it to be.” – Ansel Adams
What Ansel Adams wrote seven years after Edward Weston’s death in 1958, touched me in a special way. Here was something that I had felt and wanted all along, but could never put my finger on. Could never name it. “You might discover … how basically good you are or might become.” By looking at the photographs, reading the daybooks and letters. By getting to know the man and his work. I like that.
I like that not only as something I want to do myself (as I am looking at the photographs and reading his writing. For quite some time now). But I like it to be something to live and convey in my work as well. Not by copying Weston’s style of work and way of life. I have been talking about how unfulfilling copying somebody or their work would be, but being influenced by and sharing a basic principle with someone is legitimate.
What I have been thinking about for a while now was how whatever they call art seems to be something that needs to be provocative. How simply showing something beautiful does not seem to be good enough. Not important enough, whatever this means. I wouldn’t even care to deliver “important” work if that label is needed to be featured in galleries and museums. I think where great images should be is in people’s homes to enrich their everyday lives. And what else would someone hang in their living room or elsewhere in their home than something beautiful, something you would love to look at?
And by looking at those images and reflecting on why you like them, acknowledging the beauty and what this beauty does with you, you might realize that there is something inherently good in you and always has been.
I came back today from a few days in the Eifel nature reserve near the belgian border and was walking in the forest this morning before driving home. And as usual on New Year’s day, a lot of people are out in nature. Even those morons showing up in big-ass SUVs while everybody is dicussing climate change. But even those enjoy nature. We are eventually all coming home. And being aware that this nature is part of us, is where we came from and go back to, might make us realize there is something good in us. Even though we feel lost and detached from it. Even if we feel the need to drive an unnecessary big car.
Right now this whole concept is an intellectual exercise to me which I need to connect to my actual feelings. Up to the point where these aren’t just thoughts anymore, but feelings which will find their way into my photographic work. I am so looking forward to the moment when I realize how it actually works out. Or has worked out, because sometimes you are already doing something, you’re just not aware of it. As in all things, self-awareness is key. Or at least one of them.
“You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” – Ansel Adams
In his video “Three Guys Talking About Photography” Kevin Raber says: “Photography – for me it’s my passion, it’s my joy, the one thing I have fun with, it saves me on therapy bills and, you know, I get to drink a lot of wine when I am processing my images.”
I can subscribe to all that, and even though I do not know too much about wine I like a french red when I am editing and writing. But what I feel most passionate about in that quote is the therapy bit. Now I don’t know whether Kevin is seeing a shrink and less so because he is enjoying photography. But I do know that it changes all of us who are what they call “serious” about this, have been changed forever and will continue to change as we keep recording the world around us and along with it the world inside of us.
The beauty of it is that you don’t need high-end gear to do so. Any, really any camera will do to get you started. Actually what matters even more than the gear is to get infected by the ideas, the thought process, the philosophy of those who went before you. So all you really need is any camera and a library card (or just internet access as this is the 21st century). You will find images you like, photographers you like, their biographies and articles about what they had to say about how they got to where they are. Or were.
It is no question that you will have to learn how to operate your particular gear, that you will have to learn about general photography techniques, which you can do on your own (I have downloaded about half of YouTube to do this) or actually study it at university, art school or workshops. Either way, eventually you will be exposed to photography history and the likes of Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Paul Strand and everybody after that leading up to the current day and you.
It is not only interesting to find out what it is you like and to find your place in all of this. To realize what influences you in the images you are creating to get a sense of direction, of where you are going with this. Not to be able to sound intelligent as you are trying to come up with a somewhat decent speech for your first gallery show opening. But for you. Just for you is good enough. Because it will help you when you get to the next part.
And that part would be to realize that while you are getting more and more into this, your photography and you are feeding off each other. A better you will create better photography. And better photography will create a better you. And realizing that will give you an opportunity to work on both. By doing things consciously in both photography and life, which will eventually be hard to separate. At some point, you actually can’t anymore. Really, you just can’t.
“One doesn’t stop seeing. One doesn’t stop framing. It doesn’t turn off and on. It’s on all the time.” – Annie Leibovitz
And that’s really where the therapeutic aspect that Kevin was jokingly talking about, kicks in, even if it’s not on your prescription. With the quote by Ansel Adams above in mind, look at images you have taken when you let photography into your head and ever since then. Granted, they will differ because of new gear you acquired and/or techniques you have learned. But it is interesting to see in what situation you were at the time, what happened in your life, how you felt. Because if you feel anything at all, it will show in those images who you were then and who you are now.
So you came from realizing what touches you to defining why it does that to finding out what of you is in your images, living a more conscious and therefore fulfilled life. That is the reason why we do this even if we wouldn’t get paid and never sold a single print. If I only had those prints on the wall in my house, it would be okay with me. Those are my memories, the way I felt them, the stories how only I could tell them.
“Your photography is a record of your living, for anyone who really sees.” – Paul Strand
Taking this a step further means publishing those images, telling your stories to the world hoping anybody will care. Baring your soul like this is something brave as you are making yourself vulnerable in doing so. But as far as I can tell, the risk is totally worth it.
See, I am a picture maker, I don‘t like calling myself an artist. Art is such a vague term, how should it describe me or what I am doing? I’m having a hard time describing myself as it is. And if so, I do I like sharing the task. I give you an image and you tell me who i am. Because I am in there and if I gave it my best making it and you gave it your best looking at it, you might reward me with the best of reactions. Laughing and crying at the same time. So happy to have seen it and so touched by it.
“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.” – Don McCullin
I remember a day when a woman I had never seen before came into my studio, looked at my images and stood in front of one for quite some time. Then she came over to me and said that she didn’t know what it was, but something in that image spoke to her, stirred up a memory inside her. Any bad comment on 500px or Flickr, any criticism about what I ever had done creatively were forgotten instantly. If I can touch somebody like that, I can’t be that bad at what I do. And looking back on my life, the ups and downs, the drama and the joy, I must have done something right. That’s what I thought when that lady left the studio leaving me behind with a sense of gratefulness. And a bottle of red …
The picture above is one of the few I brought back from the island of Santorini and actually developed and printed. Although I had far more, I really wanted something like this as it was totally mine and not what people usually bring back from the island: HDR shots of Oia and Thera with the blue in the domes of the churches and in the sky and water oversaturated. (Another image from Santorini is “I Hated You”, which you can read about here – there even is a description of how to get to the place, Santorini was shot to death from. If you really, really need that.)
I know it is hard to do something different, but it is totally worth it. I’m not talking vacation snapshots here. If that’s what you do, lining up the family in front of the Eiffel Tower is perfectly alright, but that same Machu Picchu shot again? It doesn’t matter at which time of year you set up your tripod at either Inspiration Point or Tunnel View – you’re trying to do “Clearing Winter Storm”. But why?
Practice? Maybe, but that’s one hell of an effort for a practice shot. No, that won’t do as an explanation I’m afraid. But it’s not even me that you have to satisfy with an answer. It’s you.
Ask yourself why you want to do something that has been done before and more than once. And with those iconic shots there’s not really much you can do to make it look different I guess. People will always see the original image and not yours.
Just like we don’t want to copy the style of a photographer, we don’t want to copy their images either. When I play jazz guitar, you can tell who I listen to. you can hear Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall, and Barney Kessel. And I do hope you can. As I am not ashamed to have been influenced by them. But when I play the same songs they play or used to play, I don’t play their solo. So, of course, you might go where Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Walker Evans or whoever it is who influenced you went. Just don’t take the same pictures. Take what is yours and yours only. There is no satisfaction in trying to be someone else.
But realizing why you are doing something and where you are going with this will give you a sense of direction of your work and of yourself as a human being. You don’t want this to be just happening to you. Even if you let outside influences partly determine which path you might take, it is always your decision which influences you like to play a role in your life and which to neglect. This is a dynamic in your artistic and personal life which you are in control over.
So go and look at all these images you like, see why you like them, go to all these places you like, see why you like them and when you have found the place, the moment and the mood that feels like you just have to hit that shutter right then and there, please feel free to do so. Just like in love you’ll know when it’s right. And even if not – recompose and repeat.