Photographing History: The Doughboy

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One hundred years after the United States’ entry into World War I, doughboys are again in the news. This morning, in a big parade in Paris, France that both celebrated the French National Day (Bastille Day) and commemorated the centenary, a corps of American soldiers marched in the parade as a salute to President Trump, who had been invited to view the event, and several of the soldiers were dressed as WWI doughboys.

First, “doughboy” is an informal term referring to a member of the United States Army or Marine Corps, especially those who served with the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, although it was apparently in use during (and possibly originated in) the Mexican-American War in the 1840s.

In case you’re wondering, no, I’ve never photographed an actual doughboy; the last one to have served in the First World War, Frank Buckles, died in 2011 in West Virginia, aged 110. But a few years ago, at the invitation and request of the archives of the Dominican Order’s Eastern Province, I photographed a rather famous statue of a doughboy located in North Providence, Rhode Island (the Order’s archives are housed at Providence College, a few minutes drive from where the statue stands).

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Rev. Nicholas Serror, OP, photo courtesy of Dominican Archives

The statue is titled “On to Victory” and was designed by John G. Hardy, a sculptor from Warwick, RI.  The connection between the Dominicans and the statue? The model for the statue is said to have been a Dominican priest, Rev. Nicholas Hugh Serror, OP (1896-1972), who served in the infantry in WWI. Clearly destined for a life of service, Nicholas Serror entered the Dominicans, received the habit in 1927, and was ordained a priest in 1934. A faculty member at Providence College for many years, he collaborated with a colleague at nearby Brown University in the development of a drug that ended an epidemic of ringworm in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, in 1950. 

Photographing this statue was a challenge. It stands right up against St. Albans Church and so there’s always going to be some background interference. In addition, I was taken there on a bright, sunny day–though fortunately, in very late afternoon, not in the most garish period of midday light. The best solution was to select the two best “poses” of the shots I took, blur out (or remove altogether) the background, and–which was especially appropriate given the historical nature of the subject–convert them to B&W. Here are the results; you’ll note that the one photograph is a crop of one of the others to provide a close-up. (I’m tempted to go back and reprocess one or two of them in sepia to give them a “vintage” look.)

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I want to thank my Dominican friends at Providence College for the opportunity to photograph this historic statue and for honoring the results by framing one of the images to hang in their archives.

 

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Record Shot and Art Photo: Composition Challenges

A lot of my camera time is spent photographing historic structures. They could be anything from a fine house that’s been lovingly preserved to a ruin ready to succumb to the weather or the wrecker’s ball, and everything in between.

The question I always ask myself, especially if it’s a subject I’m photographing for the first time, is, how should I present this? As a straightforward record shot or in an artistic interpretation? Actually, as long as you’re there, it’s as well to do both. Record shots–or in this context one might say documentary shots–are, for me, a way of getting to know the subject: introducing my camera to it and vice versa. After I’ve taken one or more of those, I move in, look more closely, and evaluate the subject for possible artistic interpretations.

Saugerties, a river town on the Hudson River some 45 miles south of Albany, has a vast treasure of historic subjects, including the famous lighthouse that also serves as a B&B. Yesterday the light was just right for photographing a home that adjoins the Reformed Church–actually, it’s the parsonage for the church–because the rhododendrons were out in full force and offered a burst of spring beauty and color.

Here is the first image I made–the record shot: the front of the house with the door, windows, and, of course, the two rhododendron bushes.

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But I wasn’t satisfied to stop there. It’s a good record shot, a bland postcard shot, one might say, but there must be something more here.

Of course, there was. After all, what had attracted me to the building in the first place–a building I walk or drive past frequently but had never before thought of photographing? The rhododendrons, of course. Here’s the result.

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Please note: Both images are the jpgs “right out of the box,” with only minimal postprocessing. I’ll get to that stage later. But I want to point out that in this blog post I’m concerned primarily with the compositional aspects: how to get from the record or documentary shot to a personal interpretation. But there needn’t be a complete dichotomy between the two, because even a documentary shot can be transformed into something artistic depending on how you decide to process it. (This is especially useful for this historical photography because you can use a program such as Topaz B&W Effects or Nik Silver Efex Pro to make your documentary shot look like an old-fashioned historic photograph.) But that’s another story!

Back to composition: My fellow Hudson Valley photographer Robert Rodriguez, Jr. frequently writes about composition, and offers invaluable tips, in his blog and in his newsletter. If ever there was a photographer who proves that you don’t need to travel out West for the “iconic shots” to produce stunning photography, Robert is such a photographer. Click here to get to his website — I promise you’ll be glad you did. His motto is “Inspiring the Creative Spirit,” and that he certainly does.

Another Reason I’m Glad I Brought My Camera

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As a historian and a photographer I like to photograph historic sites, broadly defined. So when I discovered that the opening of a photography exhibit to which I was invited was being held in an old, restored mill in Kingston, New York, I slung my Canon G9X around my neck on the way out the door, figuring that at least I might get an interesting shot of the building’s exterior.

Kingston, in the mid Hudson Valley, is rapidly garnering a reputation as a major artistic center. Artists are flocking there to live and to work. In 2013 an organization called the Rural Ulster Preservation Company (RUPCO) purchased a now abandoned historic building (built 1903) that originally housed the  United States Lace Curtain Mill  and transformed it into a center with apartments and studio space for artists as well as, on the ground floor, space for exhibitions.

As expected, the exterior was worth photographing, and I lined everything up and got the image I wanted before going inside to see the exhibition I had come for. A friend I was with drew my attention to a little corridor and suggested I might find it interesting. Anticipating  more artwork, I was instead surprised to note that some of the machinery that had once been used to operate the mill was still there, in its original place.  Another reason I’m glad I brought my camera! Who could resist that? And I was in good company.

Here are some of the photographs I took along with descriptions of how I processed them. First, the one at the top of the page: This is the only interior shot that I took with the camera’s straightforward settings (as opposed to artistic or “scenic” presets). The very low light level required an ISO of 1600, so the first thing I did was to get rid of the noise using Nik Dfine. I then took the image into Nik Viveza, which I always find is a powerful tool for making selective adjustments accurately and fairly quickly. Since the color came out too warm I decreased the saturation to -35, and in order to maintain definition I upped the contrast to 10 (always remembering Rick Sammon’s dictum “Shadows are your friends”) and gave the structure an ever so slight bump to 2.

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Those of you who know my work are probably wondering why I didn’t go for one of my “modern vintage” looks in the photo of the building’s exterior, possibly sepia or B&W. I tried it many different ways but didn’t like the results. The brickwork made for too much detail, and thus a monochrome looked confusing. You’ll notice the image is virtually square; because of the time of day, the setting sun threw the side of the building into bright, warm sunlight and the front into shadow. Regardless of what I tried, the only solution was to crop most of the building’s side out of the photo. (Reminder to self: Return with camera on an overcast day. That way the front and the side will better integrate with each other.)

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The other machinery photos were all taken with the camera’s “Nostalgic” scenic preset. This obviated the need for a high and noisy ISO, but it did result in a somewhat soft, well, nostalgic look. In the one above the processing was simple: In Lightroom, again wanting increased definition, I bumped the contrast up to 24 and the clarity to 21. Then I took the saturation down to -17 for a look approaching monochrome but not quite getting there. In Photoshop I used Viveza to increase the structure on the little horizontal bar that has a chain on each end.

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Finally, attracted by the pattern cast by the shadow, I made an abstract (above).  Wanting increased definition, in Lightroom I bumped the contrast up to 21, darkened the shadows to -38, and slid the clarity up to 19. In Photoshop I used Viveza to decrease the saturation and to increase the structure on the main object in the picture (sorry — I’m a photographer not an engineer, so I have no idea what any of these things are called except “thingamajig”).

That was an interesting day out. Thanks to the friends who invited me to the show, and to RUPCO for breathing new life into a century-old building in midtown Kingston.

Don’t Leave Home Without It

How many times have you been out somewhere and had reason to exclaim, “Oh NO! If only I had the camera along!”? The best way to avoid that frustrating situation is always to have some kind of camera with you, because you never know. Here are some reasons why, just from the last few days:

One of the main roads into the village where I live is crossed by railroad tracks a couple of miles outside the village. I’m not talking passenger trains, I’m talking freight trains. Long ones. Sometimes verrrry long ones. When you’re approaching this crossing and the lights flash and the gates go down, you know you’re going to be stuck.

On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve I was returning from shooting my favorite ruin on the Mountaintop when the lights flashed and the gates descended just before I got to the crossing. Nothing to do but to wait. Well, this turned out to be an exceptionally slow and long train. Fortunately for me, (1) my little backup camera, the Canon G9X, was sitting beside me in the passenger seat; (2) I was only the second car in the queue, thus no obstructions. Below you see a couple of the better samples of how I whiled away the time (and retained my sanity).

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This morning after hearing the weather forecast I decided to go out for a walk before the dreaded wintry mix arrived.  As it was chiefly for the exercise it was meant to be a walk at a good pace and not my photographic moseying pace, but I slung the G9X around my neck like a piece of jewelry anyway. Here is what I saw in an antiques shop window a few blocks up Main Street:

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I then turned the corner into the village’s chief shopping and restaurant thoroughfare. A few doors down is a thrift shop run by a Christian religious organization. They always have nice window displays and one of the windows often has handwritten posters with religious texts. It happens that I have a historical interest in evangelical poetry. Here is what I found in the thrift shop window today; I couldn’t wait to send the photo to someone with whom I’ve sung this hymn many times:

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So, you never know. And P.S.: I’m still waiting for the dreaded wintry mix.

Eulogy for a Red Barn

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This old red barn in the heart of the Adirondacks was a mecca for photographers. Situated on Route 73 in Keene, New York, it regularly attracted travelers who happened to be driving that road between the Adirondack Northway and Lake Placid as well as those who, cameras in hand (or in their cars), made it a deliberate destination.

The last time I saw the barn, in early November of this year, I noticed that a pullout with real parking spaces had been added fairly recently, and I assumed that local authorities had decided, for safety’s sake, to take this measure to accommodate the motorists who were otherwise parking somewhere along the well-traveled road.

Perhaps I was correct in my assumption. But this particular use of the shiny new parking spaces was short-lived: despite intense efforts to save it, above all via a Facebook page spearheaded by New Jersey photographer Nick Palmieri, this beloved icon, one of the most photographed landmarks in the Adirondack Park, was torn down shortly before Christmas because officials had deemed it unsafe and beyond repair.

It’s difficult to pin down the exact history of the red barn. Apparently it dates from the first half of the twentieth century and actually was a functioning barn at one time. After surviving other repurposings, the barn was left deserted and the land it stood on is under the jurisdiction of the state DEC. With its red color it provided photographers with a perfect background to the field and mountains in all seasons, and its increasingly dilapidated state tended to add to its charm–until officials decided its days were numbered. The intrepid old barn had, somewhat miraculously,  survived many a tough Adirondack winter (not to mention the ravages of Hurricane Irene five years ago), and perhaps it was thought unlikely to survive the winter of 2016-2017.

So, all we have left of the beloved red Adirondack barn are memories and photographs.  Above is a photograph I took in 2013. Below is one from my last visit, nearly two months ago.

If you would like to purchase a print or other memento of the barn with one of these images on it, please click on the photo you would like and it will take you to my website.

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Scott Snyder’s Stunning New Photo Book

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Islandport Press, the publisher of this book, classifies N is for New Hampshire as “Children’s Nonfiction,” and while that’s not untrue, the book is so much more. Scott Snyder is a New England photographer, resident in southern New Hampshire and a member of the New England Photography Guild, and his magnificent work graces every page of this lovely book. There are dramatic shots such as this one of the Mt. Washington Cog Railway on the cover, landscapes, interiors and exteriors, people shots — you name it.  In a fairly short amount of time   Scott has succeeded in mastering just about every kind of photography you can think of.   Except the soullessly trendy. He has too much depth to his personality, too much sensitivity to the transcendent, to want to bother with that. Among the plethora of “souvenir” picture books that can be bought at Visitors’ Centers and book shops all over the Granite State, N is for New Hampshire stands out for the photographer’s avoidance of cliche and his deeply personal approach, and because Islandport’s production staff has done a superb job of reproducing the photographs in natural colors and not in souped-up oversaturated versions that some book and calendar publishers seem to think the public wants.

While Rebecca Rule’s text is straightforward enough for children to be able to read and appreciate, it’s by no means too elementary to be informative for adults as well. N is for New Hampshire is an enchanting book for all ages. It’s an unsurpassed way to become acquainted with the work of one of New England’s truly outstanding photographers. You can see more of Scott’s work by visiting his website, and you can purchase his book by clicking here or visiting the website of Islandport Press.

 

Just Do It! Another Take on a Familiar Theme

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Regular readers of my blog will know how I strongly urge taking that photo today, now, when you have the opportunity in front of you, rather than assuming “I can always come back tomorrow/next week/ etc.” Never assume! Next time you’re there, they may have cut that tree down, put new vinyl siding on that character-filled weather-beaten home — you name it, a whole catalogue of missed opportunities.

But this time I want to offer a different take on that theme of the dangers of procrastinating. When I’ve committed to submitting photographs for a show or to selling my wares at an event like the Windham ArtFest, I decide what’s going to go, in what size, and in what format. Then I make sure that I have all those photos/sizes/formats ready to upload to the print vendor’s website so I can order all the necessary prints. Needless to say, I try to get that all done in good time so that I’m not unnecessarily spending money on rush fees, premium shipping, that sort of thing.

Coming up in two weeks is one of my favorite shows of the year–Twilight Park Artists in the Catskills. I needed my two photos that were to be framed and hung, plus various others for what they call The Corner Store, the chance to sell extra product such as cards and matted prints. All done, ordered in time, arrived in good time.

But here’s where the danger of procrastination reared its head. I waited a while — like a week or so — before opening the package. After all, my living space is small (major understatement), and I didn’t want two framed photographs out where I could have tripped over them and damaged them.

So, yesterday, during a brief respite from the loathsome summer heat, I decided to open the package and get on with framing the two major photographs, matting another, inserting the others into the card frames, etc.

Whoa, surprise. How could I have ordered something that bad — what was I thinking? The main photos looked as if I’d had a field day with an “increase the shadows” slider, and the card ones weren’t much better. Did I really hang that autumn scene in the Ringwood show back in March?

DSC4860 sWell, yes, I did — and someone bought it. But I had used a different print vendor for that job, the same vendor I used to make card prints for the Windham event, and they were just fine. And the tree photo — to fill an order for 100 cards from a friend who is also my best customer (quite honestly, he qualifies as a patron) I used the popular print vendor I always use for my ready-made cards and most of my books, and they turned out just fine. No complaints from the customer — I mean, patron.

We have to be aware that back-lighting from our computer screens will make the photographs appear brighter than they do when printed, and so when preparing a file to be printed I tweak the various brightness settings accordingly.  And that’s what I upload for my orders.

If I had waited until the really last minute to open that package and frame the pictures, I’d have had to withdraw them from the show rather than ruin my reputation by hanging bad work. Instead I immediately submitted a new order, for the two large prints as well as for some card prints, to the vendor i normally use and trust.  So this time when I say “Do it now!” I mean, please, if you’re ordering prints for something that has a deadline, open that package as soon as it arrives. You never know.

P.S. If you’re traveling through the Catskills in mid-August, you might want to check out the Twilight Park Art Show on Saturday August 13 and Sunday August 14. Paintings, photographs, something for everyone, on the walls and in The Corner Store. Route 23a in Haines Falls. If you’re driving up through Kaaterskill Clove, the entrance is on the left just as you reach Haines Falls. See you there!