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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.