Archive for the ‘On the Creative Process’ Category

The Photographer As Predator

October 14, 2010


The Question


Let’s face it – every artist is a predator.   Writers use their childhoods, their mothers, their life experiences (Tennessee Williams and the sordid South, Hemingway and the Spanish Civil War).  Painters use atrocities (Picasso and Guernica) and their mistresses.  We all take from our surroundings and companions to feed our art.  Often, the result is beautiful and restorative.  Sometimes the relationship is symbiotic; consider Alfred Steiglitz’ erotic images of Georgia O’Keefe that built her career.  And often it’s downright parasitic – let’s not even talk about the National Enquirer and the paparazzi.

When I’m out on the street with my camera, I often see people in terms of images – and I’m hunting.  No jungle cat with an empty belly could be more alert for its prey.  The temptation is always to shoot someone – anyone – who would make a dramatic image.  This is the essential moral dilemma of the photographer: how far are we willing to go to make a statement?

Much has been written about this dilemma.  I think that this question was best summed up by Ruth Fremson, a photographer for the New York Times, who has see much suffering through her lens:

“I don’t set out to exploit another person’s suffering in order to make art,” she said. “I set out to tell a story, to explain a situation, to enhance viewers’ understanding of the world around us.

“The way a photojournalist can drive home the severity of a situation, for readers to fully understand them, is to make the most compelling image possible from an event — an image that will make someone stop for a moment, take it in and give the situation some thought.

“A photojournalist who has mastered the visual tools of composition, the use of light and color and the ability to capture the ‘decisive moment,’ will be able to produce a photo so compelling that it can be described as beautiful — or perhaps even as art — even if the subject matter is one of pain and suffering.

“Interestingly, museums around the world are filled with art that depicts human suffering, often based on real events in history…”

I struggle with this question every day that I am on the street with my camera, and constantly try to balance my art with my sense of my subjects’ dignity.  Yet even in this process, often the most rewarding part of the experience is the connection with the people in my pictures.  I met this gentleman sitting in a doorway on Seattle’s Broadway, itself a rich palette of street cafes, college students, and many who spend their days on the streets.  Many of the individuals one meets on benches and doorways are obviously in pain, and if I photograph them, it is from a distance and in a manner that preserves their anonymity.  But many, if one stops to visit, are delightful and original.  This gentleman gave me a quick smile as I stopped to talk, happily agreed to have his picture taken, and even offered me a choice of messages on his sign!  I was late for a meeting, and unfortunately, could not stop to visit with him.

This image was taken with the Ensign 16-20 on Kodak VC-160, and appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Canadian Camera magazine.


Estrin, James.  LENS- Photography, Video and Visual Journalism: Forum – Suffering and Art.

Johannes, A-M.  News Media’s Depiction of Human Suffering.

Reinhardt, M. et al.  “Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain.”  University of Chicago Press, 2007.


On Running After One’s Hat

May 5, 2010

I must admit it: I stole this title from G. K. Chesterton.  Back when people read (and wrote) essays for pleasure, G.K. penned several famous pages on looking on the bright side of life’s vicissitudes.  Most particularly, he came up with the famous and frequently-quoted aphorism “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.”  However, what was true for G.K. Chesterton about losing his headgear is just as true for photographers – if you stop planning, keep your shutter cocked, and just let things happen, opportunities for true creativity may fall into your lap when you least expect them.

Attending a course last week near Baltimore, I snatched a few hours to drive out into the rolling eastern Pennsylvania Dutch country near York and Lancaster.  I planned for this cherished side trip, packing my 1914 No.1 Kodak and my entire Baby Graphic kit, along with multiple rolls of film.  As my little rented Nissan purred along roads that crested hills of newly-plowed fields and meandered through valleys filled with cherry blossoms and the

The Silo's Shadow, York, Pennsylvania

verdant foliage of early spring, wonderful old barns and quaint farmhouses seemed to appear around every corner.  I had time to taken several rolls with the Kodak, with which I have learned to work quickly. However, I had little time to set up the Graphic and go though the routine of choosing lenses, getting out the dark cloth, composing on the ground glass, and changing out the film holders.  With the exception of a few frames, it sat in the trunk, and I began to wonder why I had packed it.

Returning homeward that evening, I boarded my little commuter jet to Chicago, only to sit on the tarmac for a cramped and frustrating hour while thunderstorms pounded O’Hare, hopelessly snarling air traffic.  Arriving in Chicago, I discovered that my flight to Seattle had departed, and I, like hundreds of other travelers, was stranded in Chicago until the following evening.  After I had untangled my airline reservations, I headed for baggage claim, only to discover that my luggage was safely locked away from prying eyes and greedy fingers – including my own!  My survival kit for the night consisted of my Baby Graphic, my computer bag, and two novels.  Fortunately, I had thought to pack with me my cell phone charger, my razor, and the essential medicines that keep my aging frame in some kind of balance.

After a night’s sleep and an indifferent dinner at the hotel on the $59 Distressed Traveler Special, I headed back to the airport to check in early, musing as I gazed out the window of the shuttle bus on the general drabness of the Chicago suburban landscape.  It was at that point that I realized that my tripod and Kodak were in my luggage, and that I was stuck with a camera with ground glass focusing and no tripod.  Abandoning my hopes of getting more pictures, I decided to at least get a walk around Chicago’s downtown Loop, and was soon rattling along on the train past miles of old brick buildings and warehouses.  Arriving at the underground station, rusty steel pillars and water stained concrete on the tunnel walls brought back memories of interminable Chicago winters during medical school, and of our longing for the mountains and oceans our West Coast home.

As I walked up Michigan Avenue and over the Chicago River, my spirits lifted somewhat in the sunshine, and I rounded a corner to find the center of Michigan Avenue a riot of color, as huge concrete planters of multicolored tulips marched up the street toward Water Tower Place.  Not only multicolored – there were large tulips, small tulips, single tulips, double tulips, tulips with three stems – and I didn’t have a tripod!

Tulips, Water Tower Place

I decided to at least try bracing myself on the concrete planter lip for a couple of frames, but I did not have much hope of taking home much that was usable.  Focusing on the ground glass, I checked my Kalart rangefinder and found that it was right on – all my careful restoration work calibrating the infinity stops was paying off, at least.

It was then that two things happened, and I began to clamber out of my mental rut of planning photography.  First, I remembered that the Baby Graphic is a press camera, and that it was designed to be used hand-held, with a body-mounted shutter release, and a wire frame viewfinder adjustable for parallax.  Then, I really began to look at my tulips, noting how the flower heads bobbed and swayed in the draft as taxis and buses tore by, and my left brain began to translate that into artistic swirls and blurs on the film.

Soon I was bracing my leg on the rim of the planter, and hardly letting myself breathe as I shot frames of the sunlit flowers at slower and slower shutter speeds to show the motion of the swaying flowers.

After several rolls of film, I caught a cab to the north side, wandering through working-class neighborhoods with old brownstones and auto repair shops housed in cavernous old brick buildings as I soaked up the feel of the city.  When it was time to leave, I found myself once more clattering south toward the Loop.  Arriving at the Lake Street Station, the car door opened to admit the sound of a spirited R&B number from a tall, skinny busker in a leather vest and cap.  A five dollar bill in his guitar case brought forth a quick smile, and I unpacked my camera.  As trains rumbled in and out, disgorging their passengers, I was struck by the manner in which most of the travelers bustled along the platform, intent on their destinations and completely oblivious to the energy of his music.  Suddenly, I was glad for my camera and the way it had forced me to stop and take notice.  I shot several frames, and then had to hurriedly close the Graphic and run for my train to the airport.

A week later, I picked up my film at the post office, and hurried home to view the scanned images.  Of the scenes of the busker, my favorite captured the tension  between the music and a preoccupied commuter striding along the platform.

The Busker and the Commuter

My Chicago transit pass is pinned up in my office as a memento of a perfect day.  I can’t wait till I miss my next flight.


Chesterton, G.K. On Running After One’s Hat and Other Whimsies.  R. McBride and Company, 1933.

The Misty Lane

January 19, 2010

The Misty Lane

This image, taken at f/22 with the 75 mm. Ross Xpres lens on my Ensign Selfix 16-20, is a good example of what can be accomplished by vigorous cropping and creative processing in Photoshop.  Although not of gallery quality, this is a pleasant and somewhat moody image of a road in the mist.  The original image (see below) was a thoroughly unremarkable color photograph of a lane in light mist taken on Kodak VC-160 film.

The mist was not thick enough to produce much effect.  However, on viewing the original image, I thought that there might still be a picture hiding within.  After converting the image to grayscale in Photoshop, I cropped out the busy sky and trees, isolating the lines of trees and road converging into the distance.  Cropping off the distracting, light-colored space between the trees at both sides, I anchored the image between dark tree trunks.  I then used the Curves function to accentuate the darker tonal values, darkening the trees at the beginning of the lane, and similarly accentuated the lighter values, brightening the early rays of the sun as they struck the end of the lane where the misty effect was most pronounced.

Misty Lane Original Image

The take-home lessons are twofold.  First, much of the artistry of photography occurs after the shutter clicks, and the same original image can be interpreted by the printer, be he/she at the sink or the mouse, in multiple ways.  Learn to scrutinize your photographs for interesting lines or elements that might be extracted to form the basis of an artistic picture.  Secondly, for those who still debate between digital and “real” photography, I would suggest that rescuing this image could have been done by traditional burning and dodging, but only by a master printer.  Using Photoshop, I drew out the essential monochrome elements of this image in about fifteen minutes- and didn’t have to clean out the sink!


Recently, a kind reader, Scott Bilotta from the International Directory of Camera Collectors, offered me another insight into the many images that can hide within a seemingly ordinary negative.  I must admit that I don’t think well in square format; as a landscape photographer, most things are side to side or, occasionally, up and down, but rarely square.  Scott reworked this image in Photoshop, using the square format to capture the critical elements in a way that I had not considered in my rectangular mindset.

The Misty Lane, Scott's Version

In this image, I think that the delicacy of the mist adds to the overall impression of early morning sun and colorful fallen leaves.  Thanks, Scott for showing me more creative possibilities.

Thinking at the Fire

January 2, 2010

Thinking at the Fire

One weekend in October, I took a camping trip through the eerie landscape left behind when the five cubic miles of water from prehistoric Lake Missoula gouged its way through the Palouse wheatfields at the end of the last ice age.  Carving out the Columbia Gorge from Western Montana to Portland, Oregon, this seven hundred foot-high wall of water must have been heard and felt for hours before it carved its way through the rolling hills, scooping out Grand Coulee and Palouse Falls.  I camped in my little tent  next to the cascading waters of Palouse Falls in below-freezing temperatures, warm in my sleeping bag under a space blanket.  Each night, my fire kept me warm and cooked my supper, then made my morning coffee after I broke the ice out of my water bucket.  One night, I set up my No. 1 Kodak on my little pocket tripod, then sat pensively gazing into the flames for several minutes while I took this exposure.  My image is partially transparent, as if I am not totally present in that time.  It matches the unearthly quality of this eroded landscape in the moonlight.

The Image I Won’t Show

December 30, 2009

As a photographer, I shoot anything that moves.  Or doesn’t move.  Or might move onto a page in someone’s magazine.

But sometimes you have to be careful about what you shoot and show.  Really careful.

I recently spent a week in Miami at the 2009 Healthcare Globalization Summit.  As usual, I wandered the streets looking for images.  Returning each night to the parking lot, I was greeted by the pleasant Hispanic man in his 40s who manned the gate.  Slightly plump, with dark curly hair, a couple of days’ stubble, and a slightly rumpled T-shirt and jeans, he looked like any one of the thousands of Hispanic men who kept Miami running for the benefit of the richer and more privileged Anglos.

One night as I pulled  into the lot, he sat with his feet perched up on the desk, absorbed in his newspaper.  Illuminated by the overhead light, he looked like one of Edward Hopper’s images of night people.  On an impulse, I asked him if I could take his picture.  We struggled a bit with his fragmentary English, but eventually he got the idea, then smiled and assented.  Hurrying to my room, I loaded film into my classic Ensign 16-20 and arrived back with camera and tripod.

We began talking as best we could while I set up my equipment.  I came to understand that he was from Columbia.  Struggling to convey something to me, Eduardo (not his real name) became frustrated, pulled out a folder from beneath his paper, opened it, and laid it out for me to read.

I was surprised to have an asylum application appear before me on the first page.  Fascinated, I read on.  My anonymous Hispanic friend was a Colombian attorney from Bogota, had been active in Colombian politics, assisting in rallies aimed at attempting to free hostages held by FARC.

FARC Soldiers

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC), a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary guerrilla organization, has been the main protagonist in the in the ongoing Colombian Civil War for more than 40 years.

Originally established in the 1960s as a people’s movement in reaction to repeated and systematic human rights abuses by the US-backed Colombian government, FARC and its nonviolent political wing FARC-EP’s tactics have degenerated over the years into kidnappings, hostage-taking and political murders.  The group became involved in the cocaine trade during the 1980s to finance itself.

Losing its popularity, FARC has faced widespread criticism throughout Columbia, expressed recently through large rallies during 2008.  Eduardo, as an attorney involved in human rights cases, became involved in the public reaction against FARC.

Soon threats ensued, and a friend and associated disappeared.  His bloodstained body was found a few days later.  Faced by escalating persecution and the very real fear of kidnapping, torture and murder, Eduardo, his wife, and their three children fled to Miami and applied for political asylum.

However, as best I could tell from Eduardo’s fractured English, they didn’t run far enough, and threatening phone calls began again after they arrived in Miami.

So that is their situation- a young family, both parents trying to make enough money to survive in a country where they do not speak the language, and dealing with death threats while they wait to see if the government will grant them asylum.  Yet Eduardo was always cheerful, friendly, and helpful, giving no sign of the way his life is going.  Could I do as well?  I’m going to remember this the next time I start to worry about my bank balance.

I did take his picture.  It’s still on the undeveloped roll in my camera.  But I won’t put it on a web site where it can be seen in Colombia.  I’ll keep it for myself and wonder when I see it how this courageous man is doing.

Lurking in the Churchyard

September 13, 2009

Lurk (intransitive verb):  to move furtively or inconspicuously.  Middle English, akin to Middle High German luren, to lie in wait.

I do a lot of this.   Lurking, that is.    At night.   And I have the images to prove it.

I honestly don’t think most people SEE at night. Otherwise, there would be crowds wandering deserted streets at night, exclaiming over the neon of an isolated roadhouse, or trekking mountain paths in the moonlight, marveling at the interplay of light and shadow in a moonlit glade.

Last week, I went for a walk at midnight in an aspen grove in Colorado. By day, this path wove through a pleasant but not particularly remarkable stand of trees bordering a wetland south of Denver. By night, as I walked along with the moon at my back, each tree glowed with a silver luminosity as if lit from within.  Returning, the shadowed back of each trunk thrust darkly upward against the moonlit meadows.  Each grove became its own composition of light and shadow, line and shape.

Night photography requires dedicated, sophisticated, and well-planned lurking.  One must haunt lonely alleys in the bad parts of town,  street lamps in lonely alleys, the “Old Town” areas of many cities, and small towns in Kentucky at midnight.  Being questioned by policemen is an occupational hazard, though most will dismiss you as a harmless eccentric when they see your camera and tripod– art is a socially acceptable form of lunacy.

The rewards are worth it however.  I captured two bored pizza jockeys at an all night pizza stand with my 1928 Kodak late one night in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.


Wandering Denver’s LoDo district on the 16th Street Mall, I caught this shot of her looking contemplatively into the windows of one of our favorite haunts, the Tattered Cover bookstore:

Janie at the Tattered Cover

If you really want to do good lurking, however, the best place is a graveyard.  Not only can you carry on the tradition of the legions of fine skulkers in the shadows of film and fiction, if there is any source of illumination, you may scuttle away into the darkness with some striking images.

St Mary’s historic Anglican Church in Metchosin, B.C. not only has a churchyard fill with pioneer headstones, it also has a perfectly situated spotlight illuminating the tombstones.  Meant to discourage vandals and beer-swilling teens, it casts a dramatic light over headstones, trees, and a quaint wrought iron bench.

Crosses in the Churchyard

The Bench in the Churchyard

My favorite image came when I noticed my shadow falling in the stone.  I initially struggled to maneuver around so that I could shoot the headstones without a shadow from either myself or my camera and tripod.  This was almost impossible at many of the best angles.  Suddenly, I saw my shadow fall outward between the stones, and that image capture circuit in my brain flashed on.  I stood over my tripod, superimposing my shadow over it, opened the shutter, and stood rigid for four minutes while the film recorded the tombstones disappearing into the darkness while my sinister shadow crept between them.

The Shadow in the Churchyard

I love these images.  Next time it’s dark, don’t just head off to the grocery store- stop and look around, and maybe wander a bit.  And if you notice a dark figure skulking about, check to see if it’s carrying an old Kodak before you whack it with your umbrella.

A Perfect (Digital) Day: On Contemplation in the Creative Process

September 8, 2009

Rand at Mosquito Pass

Rand at Mosquito Pass

This a blog about fine art photography with vintage cameras. So why am I still talking about digital? Because digital helps me think. And, although “artistic process” is a hackneyed term, artistic composition is just that- a process.   And it can’t be hurried.   As a result, my little digital camera often helps me to work my way through the maze of images that might somewhere hold a great picture.

This week, we visited our two children, Justin and Shannon, and their families in Denver, and of course I packed my four favorite cameras and a bag of film with me.  Shannon and Pete, her wonderful and steadfast husband and companion, took me for a day in the high country in their off-road modified Jeep. We set out early in the morning, and the Jeep was soon clawing its way up boulder-strewn tracks amidst twisted pines and fields of Indian Paintbrush and alpine anemomes.  After nosing down a seemingly impossible slope into a rushing creek, the Jeep clambered up the bank and deposited us in front of a wonderful abandoned turn-of-the century mining camp.

The Mine at Mosquito Pass

The Mine at Mosquito Pass

The main building was a fascinating, dilapidated complex of weathered siding, collapsing floors, graying vertical beams, and vistas of encircling jagged peaks seen through gaping window frames.  It was a truly amazing subject– and totally overwhelming.

It is at times like this that I have the fantasy of a truly great photographer like Galen Rowell or Henri Cartier-Bresson walking in and snapping images that float directly onto the pages of Life or Aperture, while I wander aimlessly, totally unable to make any sense out of this visual cacophony.  I hope that I am wrong, and I hope that the great ones also struggled to extract succinct and definitive images from the world’s disorder.

I wandered through the ruins, framing image after image on the screen of my little Canon digital point-and-shoot, and gradually a few patterns began to emerge.   The collapsed wall siding of the overseer’s house formed a swirl of faded boards around a window framing  trees and alpine meadow.  An enormous, eroded pulley lay amidst a welter of beams and boards scattered like matchsticks across the hillside.

The window

The Window

We needed to cross the pass before dark, so before I had time to set up my Baby Graphic, it was time to leave.  The Jeep climbed higher into an alpine bowl surrounded by a ring of jagged ridges and crags like knife edges thrusting into the sky.  The meadow was scattered with the detritus of old mining operations- the roof of a collapsed cabin, pieces of wood, and a cable that ran from a ring at my feet up the side of a nearby crag.  Nearby, a field of rocks spilled across a flower-strewn meadow.  Once again, the images were scattered and fragmented.  What could I see that had line, form and color that would flow across a page and carry the eye with it?

Again, it was only with time that the images and the landscape began to soak into me.  As I sat on a rock munching my egg and olive sandwiches (a Barrett family favorite) my mind began to slow and absorb the vista around me.  I noticed the rocky track curving back down the valley and leading my eye up and over the pass behind the mine.  I saw the afternoon sun briefly painting a craggy peak  near the end of the valley.  I snapped a few quick images– nothing to show to a gallery, but enough to  remind me of the elements of the scene.

It was soon time to leave once again, and I still hadn’t opened my Baby Graphic– but I had a sense of the valley.  And I knew that when I returned next year, it  all might come together for me through my lens.  I took away some snapshots, and I will mull over these and my memories of the valley.  The lesson is to try to keep from getting  frustrated when great images fail to come together.  Sometimes  even the most spectacular and unique setting lacks the lines and shapes that will flow through your lens onto an 8×10 sheet  of photographic paper, and sometimes the elements of the most dynamic and striking image just need to wait until you can calm your mind and are ready to receive them.

The Great Digital vs. Film Debate

August 21, 2009

In this great debate, I think it is useful to look at the requirements of the situation you find yourself in when you are taking the picture. My fine art photography is mostly done with vintage cameras, primarily of the 1900s to 1920s vintage, so digital isn’t an option for me, but I also own and use a digital camera.

If one is debating the best picture obtainable when you have as much time as you need to compose and expose, then I think the answer comes down to preference and the subtleties of the image in each medium. Digital and film are both very good these days, but there always going to be differences in the way each medium handles highlights, tonal gradations, shadow detail, etc., etc. They are, after all, different media, and which you choose depends on how you like the feel of the image.

Personally, I like my hybrid approach of taking film and getting it scanned (I don’t have access to a darkroom), then processing it as a digital image. I then have the option of taking my negative to Moon Photo in Seattle for their lovely selenium half-tone printing, or processing it myself in Photoshop and being able to tweak subtle light values in Curves. I can get a quickie 1MB scan or go up to 40MB without having to invest a small fortune in an expensive digital camera. And I do have the advantage of the extended dynamic range of a silver negative.

If you want movements and sharp foregrounds and perspective control, then you need a view camera and, unless you are much richer than I am, you will be using film rather than a 2×3 or 4×5 digital back. I just bought and restored a 2×3 Baby Pacemaker Crown Graphic, and will be using the above hybrid film/scanning option for my negatives.

HOWEVER- when you need to take pictures quickly or review your results in the field, there’s nothing like digital. I do NOT use my Graphic for pictures of my two year old grandson; he moves too fast, and I throw out 50% of my images before they ever get uploaded. Similarly, if you are Art Wolfe next to a herd of rhinos or a reporter for the local paper, you need to know that that great image is really in the can when you head home.

I just had the experience of packing my view camera on a kayak trip to Meares Island, an internationally-acclaimed travel destination, and then never having time to set it up as our Haida guide toured us through ancient virgin rain forest. But I did get some nice shots with my Canon point-and-shoot. I went back two days later with my whole outfit and the light was terrible, but I did have my digital images. Unfortunately, most people aren’t sympathetic when you bitch about a beautiful sunny day and those damned bright shafts of sun in the shadowy forest!

And don’t forget about traditional/alternative photographic processes that are, in one way or another, film based. Check out Kerik Kouklis’ wonderful photos using platinum/palladium and other historic processes on

Once again, it all comes down to what you need and what you love to use. If it works for you, use it. As long as the result is a thing of beauty, it doesn’t matter how you got there.

Happy shooting, whether it’s grains or pixels.