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.

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.

Photographing Trees

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It’s not often that a homily preached in church will serve as inspiration for photographs  (much less a blog post about photography), but then Fr. Michael Keane, pastor of St. Anastasia Church in Harriman, NY, isn’t your ordinary priest. He’s dynamic, inspirational, and the sort of guy that bishops everywhere would undoubtedly like to clone, several times over. Last Saturday morning I attended the All Souls Day Mass, and contrary to what one might expect — comparing “dying” nature to the departed souls — Fr. Mike regarded the beauty of the natural world as we’re privileged to enjoy it in the Northeastern USA in the autumn and compared our stunning fall foliage with senior citizens who’ve spent their lives serving and doing good. For trees and for the people, Fr. Mike said, it’s a time of transition, and that’s what he emphasized — transition, not dying.

The metaphor of trees was high on my mind because the previous week I had been privileged to meet renowned photographer Sean Kernan, one of whose major projects is Among Trees. You may have seen the calendars based on this theme with his photos over the past few years, or you can check out that project on Sean’s website or grab a copy of his book by the same name.

With foliage season having just about passed, I had some new images of trees in my own collection as well as some previous images that I now was inspired to process (or, in some cases, to reprocess). Here are a few previews; you can check out my entire (thus far!) Trees Gallery on my Zenfolio site. Hope you enjoy them! If you’re looking for a special gift for someone, all images are available for purchase.

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PhotoPlus 2013 Takes Over the Javits Center

IMG_1705 sAnother huge PhotoPlus Expo has come and gone at New York’s Javits Center. I attended yesterday (Friday) so that I could also swing over to Grand Central Station to check out the Scenic Hudson exhibit, which was there for the one day only. This also made it possible to visit the B&H and Adorama booths, which are closed on Saturdays for religious reasons. I didn’t attend any presentations or workshops but did manage to get a look-in at virtually every booth, including handling the Nikon D7100 and the latest in the Lumix G series, the DMC-GX7KS. Lovely cameras both!

Here are some photos from the day.

Proudly showing the Nikon colors

Proudly showing the Nikon colors

Nikon always has an interesting set-up for people to practice their skills on. I liked this retro look--it fits right in with my obsession for photographing interiors of vintage diners.

Nikon always has an interesting set-up for people to practice their skills on. I liked this retro look–it fits right in with my obsession for photographing interiors of vintage diners.

At the AdoramaPix booth you could spin the Wheel of Fortune and win a prize. I won a coupon for an 8 x 10 aluminyzed print!

At the AdoramaPix booth you could spin the Wheel of Fortune and win a prize. I won a coupon for an 8 x 10 aluminyzed print!



Leaving Well Enough Alone in Photography

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Sometimes the problem with having an array of editing software and plug-ins on one’s computer is that one can fall into the trap of thinking that one has to use it. Don’t get me wrong–I love my Photoshop, Nik software, Topaz Adjust and all, but the danger of overprocessing is always present; these toys are always screaming out to be used!

Here are two photos I made on my latest visit to the Adirondacks, just after Thanksgiving. It’s of the High Peaks from one of my favorite vantage points, where the Adirondak Loj Road intersects with Route 73. I always shoot in Raw and jpg, and when I uploaded and looked at these particular images in jpg, I loved them just as they came “out of the box.” OK, possibly I cropped the bottoms slightly, but otherwise my first reaction was that they looked just as Asher B. Durand would have painted the scene.

I opened the Raw file of one of the images to try to process it but gave it up as unnecessary–why “improve” on what I already liked as it was? Am I concerned that people won’t think me sufficiently “professional” if I can’t offer an impressive description of my postprocessing?

Interestingly, I included one of these images on one of my 2013 calendars with the theme A Certain Beauty (thank you to the friend who suggested this theme), and when a lady who had bought one of the calendars leafed through it and came to this picture, she commented, “It looks just like an oil painting.”

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The Adirondacks: Visiting an Old Friend

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The Lake Placid region of the Adirondacks has always been one of my favorite places to photograph. In a sense it was the place where I cut my teeth photographically, as many of my earliest serious endeavors took place there, back in the days of Fuji Velvia film and my dear old Nikon 6006 camera. My last visit there, however, had been a foliage trip in October 2010, and so it was more than time for a return. Thanksgiving weekend I took to the roads, fully expecting to get some gorgeous shots of the High Peaks in the sweet early morning sunlight–so lovely at this time of year when one doesn’t have to get up and out at an ungodly hour to make such images!

The weather had other ideas. The flurries I encountered on the Northway north of Schroon Lake–it’s always fun to drive through flurries, and they weren’t supposed to amount to anything–turned into some serious stuff by the time I was halfway between Exit 30 and Lake Placid on Route 73, and it became obvious that this wasn’t going to go away. Scratch the sweet sunlight shots; this was going to be snow close-ups in the Wilmington Wild Forest. Which I did. But after a lunchtime break at High Falls Gorge (more on that another time), as I was driving back toward Lake Placid along Route 86 (one of my favorite roads in the universe), the sun did make an appearance, just as i decided to pull into the parking area at Monument Falls.

Monument Falls is one of those iconic spots with a great view of Whiteface Mountain. I had photographed it countless times before, but years pass, you learn more about your craft, and you have a better camera and considerably expanded knowledge of post-processing, so I wanted to give it a try. In place of the late autumn foliage I had originally expected, there was, of course, snow, and the late afternoon sun was lending a nice glow to Whiteface. Out came the Nikon D90 and tripod, and I made several images, vertical as well as horizontal. I was more aware of the extra interest added by the mountain’s reflection in the water (the Ausable River, a branch of which runs through here).

Then came the post-processing. I worked on a horizontal that I thought was OK but decided to try a vertical as well in order to minimize the dark clump of trees that otherwise can threaten to be a distraction. When post-processing my historic or dilapidated buildings or my street scenes I like to give my creativity fairly free range, but my nature images I prefer minimal post-processing, on the theory that nature itself does it best. Still, I brought the image into Nik Color Efex Pro 4 (yes! I just upgraded to Pro 4). For some reason I decided to experiment with the Tonal Contrast preset, which I normally avoid in my nature shots out of concern that the result will look too artificial. Lo and behold, it worked. I moved the sliders to 44 (highlights), 50 (midtones), 20 (shadows), and 20 (saturation), and it was just enough to produce a “pop” without resulting in an inappropriate, contrived look. The result is what you see above.

Ed IMG_0350 sThis was also my first visit to Lake Placid since I got seriously into my street scenes and window reflections photography. Here I used my brand new Canon Powershot G15. Below is one of the results. Click on the image and it will take you to other images from this trip, just uploaded onto my website.