The Narrative And The Photograph

“The greatest ride in my life was about to come up, a truck, with a flatboard at the back, with about six or seven boys sprawled out on it, and the drivers, two young blond farmers from Minnesota, were picking up every single soul they found on the road — the most smiling, cheerful couple of handsome bumpkins you could ever wish to see, both wearing cotton shirts and overalls, nothing else; both thick wristed and earnest, with broad howareyou smiles for anybody and anything that came across their path.” And so begins Jack Kerouac’s description of his ride from Gothenburg to Cheyenne in the summer of ’47 on his way to Denver in my all-time favorite “On The Road”. The two farmers and some of the characters riding with him — Montana Slim and Mississippi Gene, the stop in North Platte, the truck zooming over the plains and through the crossroads towns at night with the stars so pure and bright in the thin air and no trees obstructing low-level stars anywhere.
This always was and always will be one of my favorite pieces of writing because it made me feel a certain way. It conveyed the feeling of adventurous travel, of meeting real characters and feeling so darn alive doing all that. Just as I had felt on my travels. And all this left an image in my head. Then take any image you like, I for one happened to think for example of Walker Evans’ picture of a roadside stand near Birmingham, Alabama from 1936. There is a mood, there are stories. I think about the five-digit phone number of F. M. Pointer, about the boys out front and the girl inside the store and even the woman (which in my story is the mother) coming from the house behind the stand. What they offer and how sad the fish painted above the door looks. And then there are more details, thoughts, and feelings that make these stories mine.
The average human has about 60,000 thoughts on any given day, give or take. Now we could go on trying to define what exactly constitutes a thought, but let’s not and just assume we do think a lot. Or actually, we are being thought as a majority of those are associations. These are thoughts that are triggered by principles of association as similarity, contiguity, and contrast (numerous other principles have been added in philosophy and psychology). So each and every one of us will have his personal story when viewing an image and an image when reading a story. You might not be totally aware of it all the time, but there is something going on in your head when you are presented with an image and/or story and I do believe that these two belong together. That an image will always start a story in our minds and a story will always create an image before our inner eye. So when you are a writer, photographer, painter or let’s just call us storytelling artists you should be aware of this I think as it will be beneficial in the creative process knowing what you are going for and realizing for oneself what in your work can actually do that.
I once had a woman come into my studio and after she looked around, she came to me and said that she had looked at a print for quite some time, lost in thought. And that was the nicest thing she could have said about the photograph. When your photograph, your painting or your words are strong enough, it will cause a reaction the viewer/reader will actually feel and undeniably connect to your work. And that’s really why I do this. I feel that this falls into the category “Why we came down from the trees in the first place.”.

Photographing Reality

There was a time when everybody thought that if an event was captured in a photograph it was supposedly true. The photograph was the ultimate proof it really happened. Even the internet knows the saying “pics — or it didn’t happen” and mind you, that stems from a time when Photoshop was already around.
I’d say that time is long gone, but still, it is very deeply rooted in people’s mind that a photographic image represents the truth. Despite the fact that they know an image can be easily manipulated, anyone can do it on their phone. Despite the fact that the reality is three-dimensional. Despite the fact that Santorini doesn’t look like the over-saturated HDR image everybody and their mother posts on the web.
So I think we can agree on this — a photographic image is an interpretation of the reality the photographer saw. Even without post-production. Already the choice of parameter settings, the choice of lens, the choice of from where to shoot the subject matter is an interpretation.
But here is something else, something the photographer/artist needs to think about as well, at least in my humble opinion — what is the reality?
Reality itself is not a set truth that is the same for all of us. I think reality can be interpreted, I myself am the only one to define reality for me. Let that sink in for a minute.
What I am saying is that what is real for you and me depends on our perception of things and of what we associate with these things. And then we might end up with more or less different realities.
“It seemed to me, ‘said Wonko, the Sane, ‘that any civilization that had so far lost its head as to need to include a set of detailed instructions for use in a package of toothpicks, was no longer a civilization in which I could live and stay sane.”
 
— Douglas Adams
As an example: Just as Wonko, the Sane (what do you mean you don’t know Douglas Adams?), I live in a place called “Outside of the Asylum”. Out there, people clearly went section 8, meaning all-out nuts. We have built a reality that covers the earth with concrete and tarmac, houses and malls, parking lots and airports and join in groups called nations and think of our group as being superior to another and in general kill others and the planet we were given to live on.
I accept as real the trees and clouds, the deserts and oceans, animals and human beings, the greatness of nature I cannot begin to understand and let alone explain and I think the only way to live right is in awe and respect of that nature of which I am a part. That, my friends, is REAL. And that is what I want to photograph and interpret and show over and over and over again, hoping you’ll see what I see and find your own reality. In my images and out there, in the asylum …

Time Doesn’t Live Here

Robert Graves’ study
Just outside Deià, by the road to Sóller, you’ll find the house of Robert Graves, the English poet and critic. I was told a visit there would be definitely worth my time and if it was only to find out about the muses.
A short ride from Deià, i found the house and the parking a bit up the road from it. Leaving the car on the parking lot, i walked back to the house and bought my ticket from an elderly British gentleman who I assume was Graves’ son. He opened the auditorium for me and started the 15-minute-video about Mr. Graves’ life. I was the only visitor at the time.
After the video i left the auditorium and walked through the beautiful garden to the house, up the stairs and into the recibidor, the entrance hall. What i loved about all the rooms was the simplicity. It wasn’t packed with stuff. Some pictures on the walls, flowers on the windowsills and candlesticks on side tables. The whitewashed walls and the dark wood of the tables and beams. The fact that they had a printing press there. They actually used to publish a literary journal and letterpress books, among other things.
But there were two rooms that had an atmosphere so dense that I would just want to sit there. Doing nothing. Saying nothing. Just taking it in. Looking at it like a piece of art. Those were the kitchen and Mr. Graves’ study.
The kitchen in the Graves house
Through the kitchen window the sun shined on the still life that was set up on the table, consisting of fruit, nuts, bread and olive oil. The oil carafe was literally breaking the light like a prism adding to the mystic quality of the scene.
In Mr. Graves study, his jacket was still on the chair, his glasses on the desk, next to a cup and a clipboard with sheets covered with handwritten notes and a text edited with a paintbrush. The only things running on electricity in this room were the two light bulbs and a small radio in the corner.
I don’t know whether it is true, but I can’t remember hearing anything. Not even a clock ticking away. And that’s how it felt that time didn’t live there. It was not only that his things were there like he was just out to get something from the village. It was that the place was stripped down to essentials. All you need to create, which was in his case prose and poetry.
I took pictures of those rooms. So I can still sit there and look at it long after I left. So I can find out what contributed to that atmosphere. So I could recreate it in a print and maybe in a place for myself that I have yet to find.
Mr. Graves had come to Deia to find peace. Here he had sun, the mountains, the sea and the laid back attitude of the mallorquin people. He could walk down the path near the house to the beach — a wonderful place to sit and meditate. Later that day I was drifting in the sea on my back, looking at the clouds thinking again that I wanted a place like that. That was peaceful and timeless. That healed whatever needed to be healed. And that made it easy for the muses to visit me. Where there was nothing to scare them off. And nothing to distract me from their voices whispering in my ear: “Grow, grow …”.

The Picture I Almost Took

Lone Pine (iPhone 5s, Basic adjustments in Lightroom, Color Efex Pro, Topaz Simplify oil painting filter and Silver Efex Pro black and white conversion added as layers in Photoshop.)
I missed a shot and then again I didn’t. And now I have the choice to be frustrated with what I don’t have or be grateful for what I have.
In October 2017 I visited Mallorca with my fiancee Christina and since we had rented a car we could go to all kinds of places like the house of British poet and critic Robert Graves, a visit I wrote about here.
Anyways the day before we left the island, we went to the monastery of La Victoria on the Alcudia peninsula. At the western end of the parking lot, some steps led up to a small hilltop with some pine trees looking out over the Baja Pollenca.
Walking up I saw a lone pine standing at the top framed by some trees on the left and right lower on the hill. Everything was leading up to that one tree and some really nice clouds took care of the background.
Christina was walking in front of me and when she saw the view, she counted down to the exact moment when I lifted my camera. She knows my images and sees what I see. She knew I would be drawn to this image.
So I took this iPhone image and started taking more with the Nikon. With the 35mm prime lens, I moved back and forth, left and right to get different angles. All good and well.
But I made a major mistake — I didn’t take the frame I had previously done with the phone camera. The one that leads the eye straight to that lone pine. Missed it. Didn’t do it. Don’t know why. But I was sure I had it.
When I came back home, I imported all files to Lightroom, made a cup of tea and got ready to work on the image. I had fiddled around with Snapseed on the phone and already had a look in mind.
iPhone image edited using Snapseed on the phone.
A strong vignette so the focus would be on the single tree even more. Some more structure for the cloud background, but not so much that it would take away from the main subject. And maybe add some oil painting filter to the leaves and grass using Topaz Simplify. I had it all worked out and then … it wasn’t there. Just wasn’t there.
iPhone image with oil painting filter painted in on leaves and grass using a layer mask in Photoshop.
I couldn’t believe it. How on earth could I have missed that? First I was so disappointed I just wanted to shut down the computer and go do something else. But then I thought I still have something. I can edit the iPhone image. I can even print that in about 11 x 8 inches and it will look good. And I can go back next year and do it again. Maybe even better.
So I worked on the image and came up with something I liked and had learned something along the way. So I messed up. I could have just got all irritated about it. Or I could choose to adapt and work with what I have. I have a set of lower resolution images taken with the phone or smaller cameras for images just like this one (i call it “The Tiny Collection”). So I added it to that. And the more I look at it, the happier I am with it.
The circumstances may be the same, it is just our choice, our way of looking at something that makes us feel miserable or good about it. And the best thing about it is that it doesn’t just apply to missed photographic opportunities. I’ll try and remember that the next time something goes wrong.

The Photographer’s Patience

The Fields. The Sky.
It seems quite obvious that if you are serious about photography as an art form, you have to be patient. For all kinds of reasons.
The first thing that comes to mind is the patience you need when you are out there in the field. (I am talking mainly about landscape photography here, but the principles apply to almost any kind of photography I guess.) Once you are out there, you wait until you find the right spot, the right angle, until that cloud moves, the fog settles or the sun comes up. Whatever it is — you are waiting patiently for that moment, when everything seems right for you, when it feels like the right moment to take the picture. And it needs to be that exact moment that feels right for you and you only.
But even once you experienced that excitement that is typical for that moment you feel you got something there. When you are totally sure you have the material you need. When all the exposures are made, all angles covered and you just want to head home and start working on what you just photographed. Even then you’ll still need to practice patience.
Home Office
If you start developing in the exact same way you have developed other images; if you use default settings without even trying something new; if you skip experimenting you don’t grow and you are not treating your image as the unique potential piece of art it is. Be patient and try something new. Take as long as it takes and then some.
And if possible, make a print. Making a print will teach you to be even more patient and if it was only for the wasted paper and ink if your print isn’t good enough. This, of course, assumes that you want the best possible quality for your images, technically and aesthetically.
The thing is that in this day and age we take pictures with our phones, use the same filters on them as millions of others do and then post them. Which is totally okay for those snapshots, but if this kind of workflow; this quick fix for our need for immediate gratification also find its way into our workflow as an artist, we’re doomed to get stuck in our growth as an artist and human being. Or we might even stagnate.
If we publish images prematurely, unfinished and not conveying something (which was hopefully our intention), it is like something we said in a discussion without thinking it through. It is said, it is out there and has left its mark. We can never really completely take it back. The impression is made.
I am guilty of all of that. Of having been too impatient. Of not having been careful enough with those moments I was lucky enough to witness and record. Of not realizing that I had a responsibility for my artistic integrity if you will. To try and give it all you got each and every time.
“Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”
— Ansel Adams
It is and cannot be about quantity. Then that’s the need for gratification speaking. It is about the technical quality of course, but even though this is important, this is secondary. It is all about meaning; about a personal vision; about maybe touching someone who looks at your image and for some reason even that person might be unaware of, it moves something inside him or her. That happens rarely enough, but it will be even more unlikely to happen if we get sloppy and try to take shortcuts.

There Is An Artist In All Of Us

I Remember Everything (2014)
Waiting to come out. Waiting to be given a chance to express something. Everything.
Whatever way creativity finds, there is always more you bring to the table than just what you feel in that very moment or moments of actual creation. If you want it or not. There is a history. Everything you have ever done, said, felt, heard, seen and dreamed of. Your particular idea of life and your existence, your perception of the world around you. Your joy and sadness. Your expectations and disappointments. Your wisdom and stupidity. Your knowledge and ignorance. Your empathy and arrogance. Everything you are.
And given that this combination which underlies constant change and evolution, I think it is safe to say that you, as anybody else, are unique. And that whatever you create is also. Or at least it can be. If you don’t take shortcuts in the process, as I have written about here.
It is not enough to just do something and assume it will be unique just because I am. It is essential to know what you are doing, why you are doing it and to reflect on such things that have to do with the way you express yourself using whatever medium or combination of media you have chosen. Or that seems to have chosen you.
“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
It might sound strange, but I guess being an artist entails doubting you actually are one. So you have to go back and re-evaluate all over again. Not to be in constant fear not to be good enough, but to never get too comfortable with where you are in your evolution as an artist.
The simple fact that you are thinking about this, contemplating this very moment and you in it, will show you the way, Which will always lead you to the next moment. And the next. And along with the practicing of your art, the daily dealing with the craft that your art is as well as aesthetic undertaking, this will eventually make you a more aware person. And the artist inside you will be free. To take any direction, live all your dreams, tell all the stories and to breathe life into everything you create.

Yesterday Wasn’t Bad If Tomorrow Is Promising

I had a lot of input over the last weeks. More concentrated and more significant than ever before. One thing it changes it the way I look at my work so far.
“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”
— Henri Cartier-Bresson
When Cartier-Bresson said that, that meant by the time you had used up 300 rolls of film, today it depends on the resolution of your DSLR, but a couple of memory cards will hold these. Be it as it may, what he meant was that by the time you have taken all these exposures you should have learned the basics. And that you could have already created a foundation for what someday could become a unique style of your own.
It might take you a couple more or less, but eventually, you should not worry so much anymore about technical questions. You should know when to use which aperture, what to do in post and on which paper you’ll print that pano of the mountain range.
But what I found now (and I totally am beyond that 10,000 image mark) is that I start asking myself questions which I either have no answer to or the answers don’t satisfy me.
One book I have read was “The War Of Art” by Steven Pressfield, which is a definite must-read for everyone who is doing something creative and artistic. One might not agree with the connection to the divine he makes in the final part of the book, but there is much to learn about what holds you back. And that most of that holding back is done by yourself.
So far, so good. No awkward questions there, although I asked myself how I could not have seen that myself. Why I didn’t start really fighting that without someone having to explain that to me.
But the frustration that I feel now really started when I started to read “The Photographer’s Black & White Handbook” by Harold Davis. Of course, it is not the intention of this book, which is a wonderful source and a beautiful book no doubt, to frustrate the reader. But it is now that I gain more knowledge about black and white composition, using negative space, framing, patterns, contrast and shades of gray, that I realize that I have done what I have done without knowing in depth about all this and so much more (Another Davis book, Walker Evans’ American Photographs and the first part of Edward Westons Daybooks are sitting on the shelf waiting for me).
So for a moment, a long moment even I felt frustrated today. Like I had wasted my time. I felt bad that my images had not been better. But then I thought that they weren’t bad at all. And that I wouldn’t like them less because now I knew more. Instead, this should make me feel better because eventually when this knowledge sinks in and becomes second nature, my images will be better.
What I will do now and since I have been reading and reflecting on what I read (and will continue to do so) I will have the necessary tools, is to reevaluate my own work. Respecting that they represent my knowledge, craftsmanship and artistic level at the time, but defining what needs to be done to make me a better photographer and a more meaningful artist. And just as when being confronted with the changes one has to make to become a better person, these changes will also cause resistance, fear, and frustration.
“Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I ‘m going to take tomorrow.”
— Imogen Cunningham
But as long as there is momentum, as long as I keep growing as a photographer, as an artist, and as a human being, I don’t have to worry about anything.

Photography And The Truth

“You Can’t Go Home Again” by Holger Mischke (2014)
In the 1800s, newspapers were featuring drawings as a means to illustrate stories and even though photography was invented around that time (the earliest surviving camera photograph is “View from the Window at Le Gras” by Nicéphore Niépce from 1827), it wasn’t until the 1890s when halftone printing was perfected that photographs appeared in newspapers. By the beginning of the 20th century, drawings were completely replaced by photos.
I believe it is this connection of photographs and news that ultimately led to the “pics or it didn’t happen” attitude of today. Pictures taken by a camera were supposedly showing how it really happened, what it really looked like. Mostly because it is more expensive to print in color, most newspapers kept printing photos in black and white until the early 1980s (the New York Times and The Washington Post even remained in monochrome until the 1990s. Even though a black and white photograph seems to be even further from reality, from the truth.
I say “seems”, because at this point you have to ask yourself what reality and truth really are if you want to discuss whether a photograph can really represent them. Growing up we were lead to believe that there can only be one truth. That it is (as the dictionary says) “the body of real things, events and facts”. But if you wouldn’t stop at that and doubted that “real things” or “facts” were just as “the truth” nothing you could really rely on, you were in trouble. Or about to free yourself.
To be open-minded (among other things) means to be able to accept the possibility of things to happen although they shouldn’t happen. Because science says so. Or religion. Or your parents. You could even go as far as to say IF you consider an outcome as at least possible, as far-fetched as it may seem, the probability of it actually happening, increases.
We must also keep in mind what an impact one’s own perception of the world around us has on what one considers to be real/true. And this perception is, of course, a mosaic composed of everything we ever did, felt, heard, saw and experienced. So I guess it is safe to say that everyone has to some degree a reality of his own.
So even though photos have been considered “the truth” for so long, I find it important to realize they really aren’t. Even if I try to reproduce the scene I saw as true to reality in terms of color, light, depth of field and distortion as possible, it will not be the same to all, we will all see it differently.
So should this frustrate me? That I can’t get the same message across to every single person that views my images? Absolutely not.
I do write some lines for each of my photos and publish those along with them. Which doesn’t mean that I want what I feel looking at the scene or at the image and writing the words to be what the viewer feels. And not only because it is not possible, to begin with.
The photograph must find a viewer who is touched by something in my printed photograph. The viewer and the photograph have to find each other. And in a way, this viewer who feels something looking at my work and I share something on a level of intimacy that mostly will not be acted on, will not be a part of the real world. But will nevertheless be true.

The Making Of “I Hated You”

“I Hated You”, 35mm, f/5.6, 1/4000s, ISO 100. Lens: 35mm f/1.8, Camera: Nikon D3200
The photo was taken in September of 2014 on the island of Santorini, Greece. I was there working as a tour guide which meant I was traveling back and forth between Athens and the islands Paros, Naxos, Samos, Ikaria, and Santorini. On tiny planes or sometimes almost ancient ferries. On Santorini all I usually had to do was take the group from Thira to Oia along the caldera’s edge.
Oia is that place that everybody knows and it has been “shot to death”. If you want that famous view that you will recognize the moment you get there, here is what you do: Go to the Ekklisia Panagia Platsani. It’s a small square a couple of minutes walking from the bus terminal. Go west on the alley on the south end of the square. After about 50 yards take the alley to the left and walk down to the end, which is another 50 yards. Turn southwest and you’ll see it.
Anyways, on that day I had left Thira already with the group and we were taking the alleys with what always feels like thousands of steps. If you want to make it even worse, you can walk down to the old harbor in Thira, which is supposed to be 600 steps. I never bothered walking down there. The hike up to Oia was long enough.
After you leave the houses of Thira behind, it is only about 100 yards to the village of Imerovigli and if you stay on the path that is closest to the caldera’s edge, you’ll inevitably come to Agios Georgios church.
It’s your typical greek church, very white and usually it is surrounded by a very blue sky. Or if you get the angle, you’ll see the very blue sea. I didn’t want that kind of Santorini shot everybody had. So I went for black and white and forgot all about the very blue all around me.
I didn’t have too much time as I had the group with me, but at least they were taking pictures too so I had a few minutes. When we walked through the gate onto the platform where the church was located, I had already seen what I wanted.
Standing outside the gate the image had four layers, giving it a quite some depth: The wall on the right with the lamp attached to it in the foreground, after that the gate with the cross on top, then the church itself and finally the sky with the clouds.
There is also a lot of texture in the image, rougher on the foreground wall and the gate, a lot smoother on the church in the distance.
The eyes are drawn to the bright roof of the church and the cross on top of the bells, which contrasts nicely with the darker sky and clouds. Once the eye has focussed on the white cross against the darker sky, there is this connection to the darker cross on the gate against the brighter church building, so the view goes to the gate in the foreground. I think there is a strong axis between those two crosses.
This was the first year with a DSLR, so I must admit at the time I wasn’t really sure what I was doing and I simply got lucky I guess. I wouldn’t have been able to explain as I am now, but at least at that point, it wasn’t necessary. I saw something and took the picture.
I took the image with my first DSLR, a Nikon D3200. Luckily I didn’t just stick with the kit lens, an 18–55, but I got a 35mm prime lens, which I am still using a lot. The file was developed in Lightroom and converted to black and white using Silver Efex Pro.

The Making Of “A Wound That Would Never Heal”

“A Wound That Would Never Heal”, 35mm, f/4.0, 1/200s, ISO 100. Lens: 35mm f/1.8, Camera: Nikon D3200
“As I came back to Piraeus, I found your parents’ house locked up and abandoned. You left no word where you had gone. The word had been said, the promise broken. The door is shut and nothing anybody could do would ever make things right again.”
This photo was taken three years ago in Athen’s harbor Piraeus, southwest of Greece’s ancient capital. I usually got there by bus after I flew into Athens, to catch a ferry to Paros or any of the other islands. Things would change often and I was never too sure how I would get to my destination on one of the Greek islands in the Aegean. I always stayed at Faros hotel on Notara although it was a rundown neighborhood with abandoned houses, discos and strip clubs. There was a certain sadness about that place that had everything to do with me coming and going and not staying long enough in one place to have any relationship that mattered. It was something I wanted and despised.
I didn’t walk the streets too much, but I took pictures of some of the abandoned houses, defunct clubs, and cafes with old men. I wondered who had lived there and what had happened to those people and why they had to leave. And what would happen to Piraeus?
I did some basic adjustments in Lightroom, then adjusted contrast and temperature as a Nik Color Efex layer in Photoshop, then highlighted the brighter areas around the door in Nik Viveza and sharpened the metal on the door using selective LAB sharpening. I finally converted the image to black and white with Nik Silver Efex Pro.