Get Closer For the Essence of a Photograph

I recently read an interview of the street photographer John Free (He happens to work solely with black and white film and prints his own work). In it he discusses how difficult social documentary, photojournalism and street photography are and goes on to say, “In street photography, it all must be done with one photograph and with no caption to help explain what cannot be seen. No caption and no posing, make street photography the most difficult form of photography that I have ever been involved with. My professional work in social documentary photography was very helpful in teaching myself how to get closer to the subject. Closer in many ways, not just where I stand, but how I can convey my feelings about a subject in my photograph of that subject. To bring as much life and understanding into the image, in order for the viewer to better understand the image.”

I think he has done a rather good job of capturing why it is so important and what it means to be engaged in a nearby space with your subject. Not only when making photographs of people, but also when it comes to their surroundings. This approach makes a stand-alone image better, and can do the same for a group of pictures in a documentary piece. Just look at the photographs the great Eugene Smith did for Life Magazine to see what I mean!

I like the 50mm lens best, but many use 35mm lenses in the same manner. And I’ve used 40mm lens equivalents with great results. These include the 80mm and 90mm lenses made by Mamiya and Fuji for 6×7 and 6×9 format cameras. I would estimate that 90% or more of my photographs over the years have been made with a 50mm or near 50mm lens equivalents when using formats larger than 35mm. Perhaps it is the way I see the world. I like to concentrate more closely on the subject at hand, being careful not to include what might be extraneous information. For many, the 35mm lens works best, and I also use it on occasion. It really doesn’t matter. When it comes to photographs of people, the point is to get as close to your subject as you feel comfortably doing, and in a way that doesn’t violate personal space. Then of course the key is to click the shutter at the right moment under the right circumstances!

When I am out I really don’t make a lot photographs. That’s because I try to make pictures only of what moves or entertains me in some way. And when I look at my proof sheets the choices for printing get narrowed down after careful inspection. Even after a print is made and living with it for a while I may decide it needs more work … or it may not survive at all. That’s how I do it. Finding something meaningful, getting close with an appropriate focal length lens, only making prints of real keepers, and finally making sure the final image says what I wanted to say.

Doing all of these things enables me to get “closer in many ways, not just where I stand, but how I can convey my feelings about a subject in my photograph of that subject.”

January Photo Chat Get-Together

It’s a brand New Year and hopefully a good one for everyone reading this!

Time to get together again to discuss our photographs with the ever-expanding group!

Yes, how about joining us and getting together to chat about our photographs and the stories behind them. What was your intent in making the photograph, what were you trying to say, was it a success? If you made your print, were there any particular challenges involved?

This is not a discussion focused on gear — the idea is to share insights, get constructive feedback, learn a few things, relax and make new friends!

Well, if this sounds interesting and fun, how about joining me in beautiful downtown Doylestown, PA, in the heart of scenic Bucks County, and we will get together over a cup of coffee.

Photographers of all levels are welcome.

Bring only a couple of prints to discuss. Obviously the prints should be Black and White and should be film based!

The get together will be on Sunday, January 28nd, 10:00-11:30am at the Zen Den coffee shop, located at their new address on 41 E State St, Doylestown, PA 18901.

Email or call me at 215-348-9171 if you are interested. First come first serve!

I look forward to meeting you!

Lee Friedlander, Cray at Chippewa Falls

In the late Eighties I was working in the White House and got very involved in promoting US high technology competitiveness. Of particular interest and importance was the small US supercomputing industry. Through my work I happened to meet and get to know John Rollwagen, CEO of Cray Research. During that time the Science Advisor to the President, who happened to be my boss, decided he wanted to visit Cray Research and meet Seymour Cray, it’s resident genius and pioneering founder. After some difficulty I was able to arrange the trip to the small town of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin to visit Cray’s research and manufacturing facility and get together with Seymour and John. It was a visit I will never forget, beginning with our lunch together at the Flame. I never saw or spoke to the “father of supercomputing” again but I will always cherish the memories of that great day! Tragically Seymour died in 1996 due to injuries suffered in a car crash.

Another takeaway from the trip was a copy of the book Cray at Chippewa Falls, by the great Lee Friedlander, given to me and signed with a nice inscription by John Rollwagen. I own it proudly and take it out from time to admire the photographs it contains and to remember that day so long ago.

So what about the book? Friedlander was commissioned by Cray Research to document the workings of the company for its 15th anniversary in business. To me Cray at Chippewa Falls is a wonderful example of a documentary project that includes environmental portraits of Cray workers, the town of Chippewa Falls where they worked and lived, and the surrounding countryside. The book contains almost 80 black and white photographs and is beautifully printed. They do a great job of capturing what it was like for those building the enormous and state of the art supercomputing machines 30 years ago in small town middle America.

One of the most fascinating things is the obvious dichotomy between the work “Crayons” did in their high tech day jobs and their lives outside the company in Chippewa Falls. By looking at these wonderful images you gain a strong sense of what it was like to build these great machines, that were so powerful for their time, yet today would be rivaled by something you can hold in the palm of your hand. At the same time you get a real sense of the beauty and vibrancy of small town life in America’s heartland during what now seems to be a much, much different time.

Cray at Chippewa Falls had only one printing run and is accordingly somewhat of a rare and pricy book, yet it is certainly available. I’m not sure how it compares with other Friedlander books, as it’s the only one I own. But one thing I’m sure of is that you couldn’t find a better guide for what to do if you wished to create your own documentary project on the area you live in and those that work and live there too. For this reason, for all the great images, and of course for those reasons that are personal to me, I am extremely grateful to own this wonderful book.

Goals

About a month ago I wrote an entry called Time Flies in which I discussed getting caught up in things that really didn’t matter, which takes precious time away from things that do matter, and how this is counterproductive to creative wellbeing. I further said that there’s only so much time we have, so in my case I want make more time for meaningful photographs. How to do that? Clear away all the non-worthwhile activity and focus on what is important to me. Of course this is easier said then done, but I was determined not to wait to 2018 and I have already started to take my action steps.

I think the most important thing to do besides clearing the decks of all the timewasters is to set some goals you really want to accomplish and have a likelihood of being met. I have done this and so should you. Of course many find it hard to meet any goals at all, but endeavoring to clear away the worthless nonsense in our lives enables us to take a major first step in what is necessary to meet goals we wish to realistically achieve. At least that’s what I think, so I am sticking to it!

There are a couple of projects I have wanted to do that I never get around to starting, or sometimes I find my focus seems to wander. Then there are certain prints I want to make that I haven’t gotten around to. But I am clearing out the underbrush and know what I am going to do! I’m not worrying about trying to satisfy others. Instead I plan to accomplish things that fulfill me.

I think 2018 will be a pretty good year.

Happy holidays and best wishes for your 2018!

Michael

Printing with Michael A. Smith

Have you ever got up and started printing shortly after the crack of dawn and pretty much gone straight through the day until late at night? I did … once. It was a true experience and something I’m not sure I would repeat. Nothing against Michael Smith or by extension his charming wife and similarly wonderful photographer, Paula Chamlee … but it was a lot!

A number of years ago I had taken Michael and Paula’s weekend workshop in Ottsville, Pennsylvania, not far from where I now live. We hit it off and stayed in contact after I returned home. I was asking some follow-on questions and one thing led to another … Michael asked me if I would like to assist him for a weekend. The objective: to print 100 photographs of Chicago for book publication and exhibition.  I obviously accepted and made plans to take him up on his offer. I’m not sure whether I would call it fun … however, it was certainly worthwhile for me to assist a master and I came away with more knowledge and insight than when I arrived!

Both Michael and Paula make contact prints from large format negatives – 8×10 and larger, using long discontinued and beautiful Kodak Azo silver chloride photographic paper. That’s it. No enlarging at all! At the time we got together they had enough stored in their freezers to probably last them until they can print no longer. They also market their own popular Lodima paper, designed after Azo. Both papers are beautiful and have a very long scale. Both Smith and Chamlee use Amidol developer with it (Lodima is Amidol spelled backwards!). In short it harkens back to simpler time and those famous images made by Edward Weston and other greats during the Forties and Fifties.

We had to work in an efficient manor and Smith was very strict about this. But efficient does not equate to sloppy, or printing without giving each print everything you had. Fact is that Smith is so good and it turns out that contact printing using these papers requires comparitively little manipulation!

I tried my hand at 8×10 for a while, but not long after my marathon experience I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t best for the way I work and landscape really wasn’t an area I was going to focus on. Nevertheless, one of my most beautiful pictures is a contact print made from an 8×10 negative shot in Vermont. I still remember the experience vividly. I was staying at a friend’s. Woke up and looked out the back window. The light was beautiful and I quickly gathered up the gear, ran outside in the snow, set up and made the photograph. And yes, printing it was pretty easy just as it was with most of Smith’s images. Interestingly, I liked the look of it best on paper designed to be use with enlargers. In this case the long discontinued but never forgotten Forte Elegance VC paper.

No, I don’t think I will ever participate a printing marathon like that again … and certainly never alone. But I came away with something very important from the experience. You can do great work in the darkroom if you have done your best to do great work in the field. That means a well-seen image that is properly exposed. Slowing down is the key, whether you are using a very large view camera like Smith does and making contact prints, or using a 35mm camera for enlargement. The contact print is certainly a jewel-like piece of art, but so too can be your enlarged photographs, even ones made with 35mm … if made with real care and appropriately sized.

It really is all about craft, and yes being as deliberate as possible in the darkroom. That means don’t waste time. Focus on the task at hand so you can get to the finish line efficiently. Do not sit. Do not listen to music. Do not take phone calls. Do work in the same manner every time you print. Write down your steps and make a print recipe. Take your time to adequately determine the proper print contrast using VC or graded paper. That is being efficient. Do not make an “educated guess” concerning which contrast to use. You may be wrong and that’s an inefficient use of time for sure.

Smith works fast, not because he is rushing to get done. He has honed his skills and applies them methodically, both in the field and in the darkroom in order to reach his goal … to create an expressive image! We can all learn from that.

The Uncluttered Viewfinder

I’ve been enjoying my modified Leica SL … FrankenLeica … or Frank for short (see a previous and entertaining entry on this) … and my Leica M2 and M3 cameras this year quite a bit. There really is something special about using these wonderful machines built in a time when … well … things were really built. The form factor, the metal construction, the weight, the tactile pleasure! I know, you have heard if all before. In my opinion it’s all true, but for me the critical feature common to these old rangefinders and SLRs are their viewfinders. When I look through them I see a clear, bright and mostly uncluttered view of the world.

Yes, you might say that the Leica SL has a needle (f stops) and a “lollipop” thingy (shutter speeds) that move, and when they intersect indicate correct exposure. And shutter speed information is visible at the bottom of the viewfinder. All true, but since my newer ROM lenses are not coupled (again, many thanks to Don Goldberg for solving this problem!) and I don’t use a battery, the meter is therefore fully inoperative. Only the lollipop is visible and how much I see of it is based on the shutter speed selected. If you don’t want to go the Leica route there are similar vintage and beautifully made SLRs that don’t have a meter at all, such as the wonderful Asahi Pentax SV. And many of the screw mount lenses made when that camera and the follow-on Spotmatic (with built in meter) was produced are outstanding.

The bottom line is that I’m hardly aware of what little there is in the viewfinder.

Then there are the M cameras without built in meters – M2, M3 and the M4 and its variants. No metering distractions to be concerned with. And with the M2 and M3 you only see the frame lines for the specific lens mounted on the camera. So no distractions at all!

I have always been attracted to cameras that exhibit as little information as possible in the viewfinder and especially don’t like blinking lights or other lit data found in more modern cameras. I only want to see is the scene in front of me I wish to photograph and these viewfinders allow me to do that. I think using these simple tools help me concentrate more on composition and make better pictures.

I work very simply; in most situations I merely take a meter reading of the palm of my hand (making sure I’m not in a shadowed area) using a handheld meter, then open up one stop. When I’m walking around on the street, one reading is all I need unless the light changes. For pictures of objects, buildings, or a landscape containing white clouds, etc., I take a reading of the brightest part of the scene and open up three stops. That’s it. This works for me and may well work for you.

Plenty of people use “sunny sixteen” and don’t need a meter at all. Then there are those so good that they just intuitively know the right exposure. Henri Cartier-Bresson comes to mind.

An ancillary benefit of my approach is that I don’t worry about batteries anymore or the reliability of camera electronics. Ok, my Pentax 1 degree spot meters use a battery, but I never have had a dead one in thirty plus years of use. Every couple of years I change them. On the other hand, I cannot tell you how many times I accidently left my Leica R9 switched on only to find out I had a useless paperweight when I was ready to go photograph. As much as I loved the R9, I have flushed electronic cameras out of my system.

So does using a camera with an uncluttered meter-less viewfinder, no batteries and electricity make me a photographic Luddite? Perhaps. Do I make better photographs than I might otherwise? I think so. Does it matter? Definitely.

Unforeseen Results

It’s that time again at the end of the semester when my Center for Learning in Retirement (CLR) students have to present their theme based project of ten 8×10 photographs and accompanying written essay. There’s no grade so people sometimes skip the essay, but always talk about what they did, and of course discuss each of their photographs during their presentations.

Some of my students have hung in with me for the three semesters I have been teaching and are threating to return in the spring. It’s very gratifying for me so see how they have grown over the last year and a half and I’m most appreciative of the friendships I have made during this time.

For those that follow my weekly entries and are familiar with my love of black and white film photography, it may come as a surprise that I was absolutely blown away by a particular project done completely in color with a digital camera.

My objective is not to push the use of film cameras or the production of black and white images made in a darkroom. Well, maybe someday! What I really want to accomplish is to get them to become more open to their surroundings, to look beyond their normal field of view for new and exciting possibilities. Maybe even get outside their comfort zones. Hence the concept of the project!

My student accomplished all the above and produced a truly sensitive, beautiful and thought-provoking series of abstracts made where she lives and in the locations she traveled to during the course of the semester.

The work was outstanding and worthy of exhibition; but just as important, she discovered a brand new avenue of inquiry for her photography that she will continue to pursue.

Perhaps an unforeseen result … but a welcome one that comes from a willingness to try something different and giving it your best shot.

She pushed herself to do something new and creative, and succeeded in meeting her goals. In other words, she is a photographer.

William Clift, Certain Places

I had a great Thanksgiving and I hope those who celebrate it had one as well. One of the things I am thankful for is to have a wonderful photographic library that contains Certain Places, by the great photographer William Clift.

I won’t waste any time and get right to the point. This slender and not overly large book containing only 22 black and white photographs is perhaps one of the finest I own. The subjects include the New Mexico landscape, Mont Saint Michel, public buildings, sculptures and a few other assorted images. A particularly memorable photograph is Swing, Tesuque, New Mexico, 1973. It’s a picture of swing made of woven rope blowing in the New Mexico breeze with what looks like storm clouds in the distance. The light is amazing the scene is breathtaking. In short, it is one of the most beautiful photographs I have ever seen. I can only imagine what it would look like in front of me!

I found an interesting interview of Clift. He states that he is not a traditionalist and uses a range of cameras including 8×10, 5×7, 4×5, medium format and 35mm. Sounds like using the right tool for the job, or perhaps he just makes great pictures with whatever camera he chooses. That wouldn’t surprise me at all! What was most interesting was his statement that he makes very few pictures.  In other words only what is meaningful to him. In a video interview he discusses the mistake of attempting to make photographs that will appeal to others. No doubt his approach to seeing and making photographs that move him contributes to a very high rate of successful images and is something we should all think about!

His philosophy and working methods shine through in this most beautiful of books and I never tire of looking at it.

Yes, only 22 photographs, but a truly remarkable book that belongs in everyone’s photography library!