Look Behind You

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Pictures of lots of photographers all lined up jostling for space so they can get their shot of that “iconic scene” are legion. To counter this, you have wise, experienced photographers who advise you, “Look beyond the obvious!” Turn in another direction!” “Look behind you!”

I was reminded of this recently not by a top-notch photographer but by a lady I met in the course of a walk at one of my favorite spots — Cooper Lake in the Catskill Mountains of New York. It was Christmas Day and the relentless chill that would (little did we then know) plague our entire winter here in the Northeast was just settling in. I set out with my new Nikon D7100 hoping to get some shots of the lake while the ice, not yet very thick or snowed over, still had some interesting patterns in it instead of  the boring, uniform white that would develop later.

People you meet along the lake are usually very open and friendly, and this lady, who said she often brings a little camera along but didn’t have it with her that day (only a fanatic like me was actually going to stop in that freezing cold to set up a camera and shoot), told me that farther along, on the side of the road away from the lake, dripping water was producing some interesting ice activity on the rocks and branches — in other words, don’t just look at the obvious — the lake — and pass up this close-up potential.

Sure enough, a little farther along and there it was. It had grown much too cold to have the patience to set up the tripod and try to get intricate shots that would really have done justice to the scenes, so the best I could do was to put on my Tamron 75-300mm Vibration Reduction lens, turn on the VR, and shoot handheld.  This is a lot of trial and error, but if a couple of good shots result, it’s worth it. Here are my couple of reasonably good shots.

DSC0168 BW sI had a few icicle photos to choose from, and the one at the top of this post was the best. I processed it in blue for an unusual effect. Then, out of many snow-ice-branch and twig-rock images, I selected this one on the left and processed it in black and white; the color did nothing to enhance it, and the B&W enhanced the starkness of this winter weather.

And yes, I did get a fairly decent image of the lake itself with the ice patterns. Here, below, is the one I chose. A good deal of cropping from the bottom was necessary, and retaining the color — actually, processing it so as to bring out the color — was the way to go. You can click on this image and on the top image of the blue icicles to see the larger photos on my website.

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Again, remember that it’s always worth looking away from the obvious — you never know what you’ll find that will make an interesting photograph.

Walker Evans American Photographs at the MoMA

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My first encounter with the work of Walker Evans was, I think, the most mind-bending revelation I’ve ever had with regard to expanding my concepts of the possibilities of photography. Until then, my personal experience of attempting “serious” photography had been shooting landscapes and nature, and my chief inspiration was the highly colorful Fuji Velvia work of the great Galen Rowell. Could there be anything else?

Then one day, must have been in the late 1990s, my son suggested that we go and check out a Walker Evans exhibit that was running in NYC. So we did. And thereby entered an entirely new artistic world. Art? Yes. Evans’s work is highly documentary and his subject matter disarmingly ordinary, but for all that, he thought carefully about his compositions and the use of light and dark. At that exhibit several years ago, what knocked me over the head most was the ordinariness of his subjects. Here weren’t spectacular landscapes, mountains, waterfalls, but plain regular people, plain regular buildings, including gas stations and shacks. All in monochrome.

My son commented on this ordinariness, “Who today would ever think of just photographing a Stewart’s Shop?” (For those of you who don’t live in upstate New York, think 7-/11, Cumberland Farms, Wawa.) That remark stuck in the back of my head for years and eventually was the catalyst for my own work photographing old buildings—stores, homes, resorts, whether repurposed or ruins. Whether I’ve yet to capture successfully the iconic Stewart’s Shop remains to be seen, though I’m trying.

At the latest Walker Evans exhibit, Walker Evans American Photographs now on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it was Evans’s artistic approach that made me take notice. As I said above, he clearly thought out his compositions; just because his subject matter was ordinary, everyday life didn’t mean that he just picked up the camera and clicked. Just as the stunning Ansel Adams show at the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, MA in 2012 revealed to me the important roles of light and dark in Adams’ compositions, so this Evans show did the same for the kinds of subjects he worked with.

Walker Evans American Photographs commemorates the 75th anniversary of the first one-person photography exhibition in MoMA’s history as well as the accompanying publication, which established the potential of the photographer’s book as an indivisible work of art. Here is MoMA’s own description: “Through these projects Walker Evans created a collective portrait of the eastern United States during a decade of profound transformation—one that coincided with the flood of everyday images, both still and moving, from an expanding mass culture, and the construction of a Modernist history of photography.”

The exhibit includes approximately sixty prints from MoMA’s collection that were included in the 1938 exhibition or in the accompanying landmark publication. Obviously I can’t reproduce his work here, but if you click this link you’ll see a good selection of them. One of my favorites is the fish shack, which shows Evans at his best, making sense of those wonderfully busy places and reminding me of similar buildings in New England or, in one case, of a beloved smoked fish shack on the Baltic coast in northern Sweden.  Walker Evans American Photographs is running until March 9.  Here are further details. If you are anywhere in or near NYC, don’t miss it.

Oh, the photo at the top? Zabar’s, one of NYC’s most amazing food emporia. I took this photo the same day. Again, if you’re in the city for the Evans exhibit (or any other reason), don’t miss Zabar’s, especially if you’re a cheese aficionado.

The Art of the Photograph: A Review

Art of the photographThe Art of the Photograph: Essential Habits for Stronger Composition, by Art Wolfe and Rob Sheppard. Foreword by Dewitt Jones. New York: Amphoto Books, 2013.

If you were to buy only one book to inspire your photography and take it to the next level, The Art of the Photograph is the book to have. This magnificent book was created by the unbeatable combination of master photographers Art Wolfe and Rob Sheppard—specifically, it offers you photos by Art Wolfe and his stories about how he learned and now approaches his craft, along with Rob Sheppard’s text. Having had personal experience of Rob’s thorough and enthusiastic teaching, I can say that he is up to form in this book.

What makes Art Wolfe’s photographs the ideal visual material for this book—aside, of course, from his being one of the most outstanding photographers in the world today—is the amazing variety of subjects he captures. He travels the world, photographing everywhere from the Palouse to Antarctica,  photographing people, landscapes, even abstracts. In fact, he advises you not to limit yourself by self-identifying as a particular type of photographer but, instead, to be open to everything. One of the valuable concepts I’ve learned from the book is to be looking for the photograph, not for the subject.

The chapters are titled “Finding Inspiration,” “Discovering the Subject,” “Constructing the Image,” “Camera and Lens,” “The Elements of Design,” “Color and Black-and-White,” “Light and Composition,” “Creative Solutions,” “The 10 Deadly Sins of Composition,” and “Equipment and Workflow.” The chapters offer springboards to help you formulate your own philosophy of and approach to photographing; this is not a “how to” book of the technical aspects of photography.

One of the great strengths of The Art of the Photograph is that it is conceived, in part, as a dialogue between the authors and the reader. This is vitally important. If you’re going to teach something as complex as Essential Habits for Stronger Composition (the book’s subtitle), you have to provide the opportunity for the student to appropriate the material for themselves, to reflect on how it applies to them. This is achieved by questions for reflection at the end of each chapter. So, do keep a notebook as you make your way through the book, not only to jot down your reflections but also to make a note of concepts that pop out at you as particularly important.

One of my favorite parts of the book (as well as the most challenging) is Chapter 9, “The 10 Deadly Sins of Composition.” Here is your moment of honest reckoning, as you acknowledge which of these sins you are guilty of. Come to terms with those “sins” of yours, improve your work accordingly, and you’re well on your way.

One word of caution, and I highlight this because inevitably someone is going to criticize the book for something it wasn’t intended to do: Aside from basic exposure information, Art does not go into detail about how he captured and processed each photo. That’s not the point of having the photos in the book: the point is deftly expressed by another master photographer, Dewitt Jones, in his foreword: “Don’t analyze them, just experience them. You are in the presence of one of the finest photographers of our time; let his images instruct you. Let your eyes understand the lessons that the text will eventually teach your brain.” In other words, make the photos and their individual elements your own; let them help you to be an active learner rather than a passive recipient of information.

Not only is The Art of the Photograph an indispensable resource for the individual learn-on-your-own photographer, but it would also be an invaluable text for a college-level course on composition for photography majors. Professors in art programs, take note.

It’s in the Timing

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I just saw a news video from the local TV station showing a Coast Guard ice breaker making its way up the Hudson River from West Point to Albany to clear a path through the frozen river for the traffic to get through. Here’s the link:

http://westchester.news12.com/news/u-s-coastguard-crew-takes-to-the-hudson-river-to-help-break-the-ice-1.6871920

Aside from its scenic beauty, the Hudson has always been and still is an important thoroughfare for commercial traffic. This is especially important right now since most of the heating oil used in our area is transported this way, and we’ve had really frigid temperatures since early this week!

About three years ago at this time I happened to be visiting one of my favorite local photo spots at Plum Point on the Hudson, figuring on getting some “frozen Hudson” shots. I had no sooner set up camera and tripod than along came the Coast Guard vessel breaking a path through the ice. Great timing! I got a number of shots, but the one at the top here was the best.

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My Favorite Photos from 2013

I need your help! I’ve whittled my faves from 2013 down to twenty images, but I want to get it down to the Top Ten to feature on my website. Below are the top twenty. Please have a look and send me a comment on your favorites. You may select any number of photos but no more than ten. The photo number and caption are under each photo, but just giving the number is fine. You don’t have to rate them in order, but you may if you wish.

To make it still more interesting for you, here’s an incentive: Each person who sends a comment listing their favorite(s) will be entered in a drawing to receive a signed 8.5 x 11 print. On January 20 I will select three names at random from among those who have commented; those three will receive one of the prizes.

So, here are the photos — please tell me which ones you would nominate for the Top Ten of 2013.

1 - Poughkeepsie

1 – Poughkeepsie

2 - Baltimore Sunrise

2 – Baltimore Sunrise

3 - Inner Harbor

3 – Inner Harbor

4 - Omaha Diner

4 – Omaha Diner

5 - Thunderbird Wheel

5 – Thunderbird Wheel

6 - New Hampshire Storefront

6 – New Hampshire Storefront

7 - Historic Rhode Island

7 – Historic Rhode Island

8 - Gritty Old Car

8 – Gritty Old Car

9 - Newport, RI

9 – Newport, RI

10 - Poughkeepsie in B&W

10 – Poughkeepsie in B&W

11 - Poets Walk Park

11 – Poets Walk Park

12 - New Hampshire Reflections

12 – New Hampshire Reflections

13 - The Old Barn

13 – The Old Barn

14 - Crawford Notch

14 – Crawford Notch

15 - Catskill Trees

15 – Catskill Trees

16 - Chapel Pond

16 – Chapel Pond

17 - Autumn Color Splash

17 – Autumn Color Splash

18 - Autumn Evening at the Lake

18 – Autumn Evening at the Lake

19 - Cold Spring Resort

19 – Cold Spring Resort

20 - Lexington Hotel

20 – Lexington Hotel

Portrait of Susan

I don’t consider myself a portrait photographer by any means, but having learned about available-light portraiture from the wonderful Ibarionex Perello I at least developed enough confidence to shoot some portraits under those conditions. (I admire the people who work with strobes and all that sort of thing, but it’s beyond the tasks I’ve set out for myself in this lifetime.)

DSC_0197 1 sJust after I completed the course with Ibarionex, my friend, author Susan Heyboer O’Keefe, took me to dinner and asked me to shoot her portrait as her publicity mug for her upcoming novel. Susan is primarily known as an author for children and young adults, and Frankenstein’s Monster was going to be her first novel for adults.  Well, I said, I’d give it a try. Here is the result. Susan had a gift for the jaunty wearing of hats. I photographed her outside our office building, where the blurred reflection of fall foliage in the black glass provided an uncluttered background, and the light overcast sky that day was just what we needed to avoid harsh glare.

Last spring, when one of her brothers-in-law was Ed IMG_1369 sgetting married, Susan decided to get a blue streak in her hair for the occasion, and she asked me to photograph her. Not so much a formal portrait as a decent record shot. Here is one of them. The light was perhaps a bit too strong, but there was the advantage of the background being almost completely dark. Or so I thought. This turned out to be the only usable photo of the series, because for the others I turned in a slightly different direction — and ended up with a lovely tree reflection growing out of her head. Lesson learned: When shooting in the sun and you think your background is complete (or nearly complete) shadow, don’t assume anything: Check your LCD screen very carefully, preferably with a loupe, just to make quite sure.

Shortly before the blue hair incident, Susan had taken a bad fall on some ice outside her front door and used a cane ever after that. But not an ordinary, functional-looking cane. Not Susan. It was a consummately stylish cane, and she used it with aplomb, especially when it was accompanied by her usual array of colorful, flowing scarves and shawls. I regret that I never got round to photographing her with it.

The blue hair pictures may have been the last “serious” portraits ever taken of Susan. She died, suddenly and shockingly, of a suspected coronary embolism, two days before Christmas. She was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of my photography. She even gave a metallic print of my Vintage Chevy abstract to her brother-in-law as a present, at the same time as she ordered an aluminum print of it for herself.

But more than that: After her funeral in New Jersey yesterday, I decided to avoid the Interstates and instead return north via the back roads through Ringwood — that intriguingly liminal area where Passaic County melts into New York’s Orange County and where my cameras and I spent considerable amounts of time during the four years I lived in Bergen County. And along Route 511 I passed the Ringwood Diner, where Susan and I once met for Sunday brunch after I had finished shooting at Ringwood Manor (“Just call me when you’re finished,” she had said). Arriving first, I took up a table by a window and before long saw Susan coming up the ramp, smiling. Someone was smiling because they were about to spend time with me. It doesn’t get better than that.

Rest in peace, Susan. No, despite what the song says, you didn’t leave us laughing when you went – you left us crying. But undoubtedly you now have the folks in heaven shedding tears of laughter.

Note to self: Got to get back to photograph the Ringwood Diner.

Topaz Great Plug-In for B&W

A few weeks ago I visited an antiques store in the Catskills region known as the Mountain Top. The store, at the junction of Routes 23A and 296 in Hunter, New York, is run by Cindy Smith, and contains both “Old Treasured Belongings” — the gently used items of all kinds — and “Handmade by Cindy” — a stunning array of handbags and other products made by Cindy herself. If you want to read more details, and to see my full-color versions of the photos below, please check the December 5 post on my Hudson Valley and Catskills blog.

But in this post I want to show you just a small part of the capabilities of Topaz’s B & W Effects. This is a powerful tool for expanding your creative postprocessing options, and given my propensity for photographing historic and other interesting buildings, both inside and out, I purchased and downloaded it to see how it could enhance what I call my “Modern Vintage” work. 

Since my objective is that you enjoy the old-fashioned warmth and coziness of  Cindy’s store as mediated by my interpretations, rather than to give you a detailed photo tutorial, I’m going to post the four pictures with just a brief word of explanation about how Topaz B&W Effects was applied in each image.

Ed Img 2034 Top BW sThe presets in Topaz B&W Effects are grouped into collections with such headings as Traditional, Albumen, Cyanotype, Stylized, Opalotype, and others. Each collection then has a number of different presets, which you can preview in a grid if you want and then select from the grid the one you want to work with. This photo was processed using Warm Tone White with Border from the Traditional collection. I increased the Brightness slightly to give it a hint of a faded look.

I’m not a fan of unusual effects for their own sake, but in this case it seemed to Ed Img 2040 Top BW sfit the subject of the image, as if the room were emerging like a benign spirit from a pleasant past. (No, no, I’m not channeling Dickens — at least, I don’t think so!) It’s the Milky White preset from the Opalotype collection. I’ve found that Opalotype presets have good potential for these “old-fashioned” interpretations; I’ve used another in a slightly different context, the interior of a rural diner.

Ed IMG 2036 Top BW sBoth in Topaz B&W Effects and in Topaz Adjust 5 I’ve found the Stylized collections to be great places to mine for processing ideas, and so the next two images were both processed with Stylized presets. This one used the Painterly Color preset; it seemed to be a good way both to make sense of the busyness of the room and to contrast with my interpretation of the first photo above that has similar content.

A word of warning: Topaz B&W Effects is like rich food; you can only eat so Ed IMG Top BW 2044 smuch rich food at one sitting, and in my experience I found myself saying “enough!” by the time I got to the fourth picture, again in one sitting.  A lot of trial-and-error went on here as I found it difficult to settle on an interpretation I could live with. My aim, after all, was to make workable, artistic interpretations in their own right rather than to offer demonstrations of Topaz B&W Effects as ends in themselves. For this last one I again chose from the Stylized collection, this time the Detailed Grunge preset. I gave it a very slight tint. Looking back on the entire process, I found it interesting that my “Modern Vintage” interpretations lend themselves to the two extremes, either a grungy, detailed, structured look or a soft look with vignetting or other “fading” effects toward the edges.

There you have it — my brief intro to Topaz B&W Effects. If you visit their website you can download a free trial before deciding to buy.  I get no commission here, just wanted to share my enthusiasm for this great plug-in in case it helps you. The photos are for sale on my website.

Read about my book Historic Hudson Valley