Equipment: I gotta have that!

Shot with 8x10 camera

Shot with 8×10 view camera

This particular post has actually been the most difficult one I have ever attempted. The problem is that the issue is really very complex and we all make decisions about our equipment purchases for different reasons.

Some of our reasons are very real, objective reasons while many times these might be perceived or manufactured needs and then, of course, there are the psychological factors which are probably present to some degree in all decisions. My feeling about this is that these psychological factors are probably just as important–if not more– when it comes to buying equipment. They are most likely the factor that finally seals our decision to buy. We just get to a point where we can’t tolerate not getting that new equipment anymore.

Shot with Rebel XT

Shot with Rebel XT

The issue is that if we don’t feel good about the equipment we are using, we aren’t going to feel good about our photography. If we feel that we are using “inferior” equipment, regardless of the reality, we just aren’t going to want to shoot or feel confident in what we are doing. Creativity and creative flow requires us to be free from other concerns and just create. We have to feel good about what we are doing.

So if I were to give my bottom-line advice as to what to buy, it would be:

You should own the equipment you like to use, feel good using and which you feel meets your needs.

Of course, if someone asks me my opinion about their purchase decision, I would have a lot of questions that I might ask to ferret out the real need. But I am not going to waste my time either.  How far I would go with this might be how well I knew the person and how they responded to the easy questions that I had already asked. Sometimes the decision is already made when they ask, they are just looking for validation, not logic!

Zone Plate on Medium Format film camera

Zone Plate on Medium Format film camera

I would even support someone always buying the latest and greatest if they happen to be someone who needs to do that—regardless of their reason (depending on the degree of this obsession, I might also support their going to see a psychiatrist!) But I suppose if you have the disposable income and the decision doesn’t adversely affect others’ well being, then why not? You aren’t going to be happy if you don’t do it. I wouldn’t recommend this but I would support it!

There are certainly real reasons for needing to change or upgrade equipment. We may have a need that has developed over time that can’t be filled with a current piece of equipment. Maybe we have decided to pursue a different genre or the way we use our images has changed and better or different equipment makes sense.

Even here, there are degrees of need and want-the psychological reasons. I know that while shooting commercially, I changed medium format systems more than a few times to just make things easier and move a bit more smoothly—there was a need but also a lot of the psychological want. Except in one case, I could have made do with the equipment I had been using for the previous 10 years.

Shot with Canon 1dsMKIII

Shot with Canon 1dsMKIII

But I think a more important area to look at, for most amateur and serious hobbyist photographers, is the source of those perceived and manufactured needs.

First, and maybe the most influential, is just the sheer volume of information we have available to us today and how it is often “pushed” at us even when we aren’t looking for it.

You can’t go look at a product on any major retailer’s site and then not constantly see an ad–from that retailer for that product–show up on almost every other site you visit. Most of us love equipment and seeing it constantly will wear on us.

Then, every photography blog (except this one) or photo sharing site is always reviewing equipment or discussing the merits of this or that new thing. Some of these seem very innocuous, as on the forums it is often someone’s simple inquiry about their interest in upgrading.

The point is that all that information is going to make you question your own equipment’s capabilities—especially if you are new and still insecure about your photography–as most of us are or were! When we hear about all the great things something we don’t have does, it just makes us wonder about how good our equipment actually is—especially when we aren’t totally satisfied with what we are producing yet.

shot with 4x5 view camera

shot with 4×5 view camera

Sometimes the hype by the vendors is so good that even if we are happy, and know better, it can make us want to “upgrade”! Yesterday I went to a retailer’s site to look up the price of a lens I tested a few years ago and they had a video about the lens right on the lens’ page. I hadn’t been 100% happy with the one I have and this one was widely regarded as the best in its class. My 3 day intensive technical and practical testing suggested that it was no better than the lens I had! I saved $2000. I watched that video and it almost made me want to buy the lens again!

So, if you know you are susceptible to this type of information—and we all are to some degree–I would recommend staying away from discussions or reading reviews until you have actually discovered you have a need. Then, be careful, there are a lot of opinions out there that aren’t well informed or from folks who wont have your same standards. Try to find very reputable people or sites for your information.

In fact, even after that, I suggest you test the equipment—rent it or even buy it from a retailer that has a reasonable return policy, even if there is a 10% restocking fee. That is often the same cost, or less, as a multi day rental—and if you find the new equipment doesn’t really meet with the hype and your needs, return it!

Another thing that I think can cause us to question our equipment is just the sheer size/magnification that we can view it at on our computers. Most of us are pixel peepers to some degree and if you have a monitor with a 100 dpi resolution, at 100%, you will be looking at your files at an equivalent print width of between 40 to 75 inches! Even with some of the newer, higher res monitors, you’re still looking at a 20 to 40 inch equivalent. The larger, the more flaws will show. Consider that an 8×12 print enlarges a detail area from what the sensor records by about 64 times while a 60 inch wide print would be about 1600 times—this is based on full frame 35mm. With a crop sensor, that could be as much as 3600 times! Evaluate your images based on the size you intend to use and not what you might/maybe/possibly use someday.

One of the things that we have to remember in all of this is that the most important thing is that we are making the images we want to make. Over the years I have purposely made the decision to use what might be considered inferior equipment because of what it could produce or because it actually met my need at that time.

Shot with Holga for The Atlantic

Shot with Holga for The Atlantic

A few years back, a major magazine, The Atlantic, hired me to create the images needed to illustrate their cover story.  They were interested in having me shoot that work in a specific style I was doing at that time.   Much of that work—and the images they had seen that attracted their attention—was shot with the toy camera, the Holga. I made sure they understood I would be shooting with that camera and they were fine with it.

For several years, I didn’t even use what we consider a “lens” for much of my personal work. The images are not traditional but they were exactly what I was looking to create. This was the Zone Plate and I have used this with several different formats.

About 4 years ago, I decided to shoot with my iPhone 4 for a specific reason and then, for a specific project. For the next 3 years, this was my most used camera—although I moved up to the 5 the summer of 2014 after the 4 spent a wonderful hour in a Sedona Jacuzzi! I’ve ended up with 3 different bodies of work from this camera. The one I have finalized and posted on my website, Lotus, has been exhibited with many of the images beautifully printed at 20×20 inches. In this case, the iPhone was actually the perfect equipment and that series would not have existed if I had been using my standard equipment. I explain this all in a 5 part series on my other blog, here.


shot with iPhone 4

Today, although I could choose to shoot large format or from several medium format systems, I primarily use the same 35mm dSLR and lenses I bought 8 years ago. It was state of the art then—the only full frame on the market and has a similar mega-pixel count as most higher-end dSLR’s today. There certainly have been a lot of “improvements” in cameras, sensors and such since, however, I haven’t seen the type of image quality improvements or relevant new features that would make me want to “upgrade”. Others might feel differently as they have different needs and wants than I do.

The point of all of this, as well as my presentation of the quote by Minor White and the work of Sarah Moon is that, again, what we need to focus on is the images we want to produce and having equipment that makes that happen.

Beyond that we are really just dealing with, and satisfying, our wants and those other psychological needs. We need to respect these as well but I suggest that we avoid things that we know can create them!

As usual, please feel free to share your opinions, comments or questions!

We’ll be looking at The Idea: Part 3 next week.

A Photographer to Know: Sarah Moon

In my last post I indicated that I was going to talk about the choice of equipment today, I lied.  Well, not really, it’s just that while I was writing apparently “someone” threw a switch and I ended up writing what you might want or expect to hear rather than what I think you should hear.  As I pondered this, Sarah Moon’s work came to mind and I thought how relevant it would be to present her work before we get into the discussion about equipment.

Sarah Moon is a highly regarded fashion photographer and has been since the 70’s when she stopped modeling and started shooting full-time–that is also when she adopted the name Sarah Moon.  She was the first woman to shoot the Pirelli calendar and has created work for the top fashion magazines and companies around the world.

In contrast to the work of Henry Wessel that I presented earlier, Sarah’s work has a much more organic, romantic and emotional sensibility.  Her work often transcends the subject and can reach us in unexpected ways if we are open to it–it allows the mind to wander away from what is presented on the surface.  Great art does that and while I think Wessel’s work also allows for this, Sarah’s goes different places–maybe more personal, internal places.

To some, it might actually seem she doesn’t understand anything about the technical aspects of photography–her work is blurry, out of focus, blotchy; her highlights are often blown out and shadows blocked; and sometimes the film processing looks totally incompetent.  If you think that way, consider altering your thoughts to the fact that just like Ansel Adams was a master of his process, Sarah is a master of her process–they just have a different aesthetic preference about how they express their view of the world.  I learned Ansel’s process but I absolutely love Sarah’s.

One thing that I read about her somewhere was that she grew up near-sighted and didn’t have glasses.  When she started shooting, she just thought that her photographs revealed how things looked–at least how she had always seen things.  I don’t know how true this is, however, I do know that many wonderful ways of seeing happened because people were just “stuck” with some camera that produced a certain type of image (often less than perfect by modern standards) that ended up meshing with their way of expressing the world around.  The question might be the old chicken and egg, did the camera suit their way of seeing or did it change their way of seeing.  Regardless, the two were happily married and made wonderful babies!

The first video here is narrated by Sarah (an assumption as no narrator is listed in the credits) in a more stream of consciousness way about her process of shooting and is heavily oriented towards her fashion work.  It is extremely interesting, IMO, and if you don’t shoot fashion I still think you could identify with and interpolate her process, frustrations and breakthroughs to a sense of what the artistic process is like.  Even if you have experienced this yourself, it is always nice to see how someone else works and how things are, or can be, different.  This can open up new channels of thought or simply make us aware that we all experience similar things with maybe our own unique twist.

The second video covers a wider range of her work and just has a musical sound track.  I know this one has some nudity–tasteful but maybe not something you can watch at work.  I don’t think the first one had any but you may want to consider watching it where it wouldn’t matter.  I hope you enjoy these as much as I did.

By the way, I do expect to come through with the equipment post on Friday.

Of course, I would love to hear any thoughts, comments or alternative perspective you might have.


“A Photographer to Know” will be one of the regular features of this blog. The purpose is to present the work of recognized artists in the field that may not be as widely known to most. Liking or not isn’t the purpose, but rather it is about exposure to what others are doing and/or how others are thinking about or using our medium. By looking at the work of artists in any medium, we can build our own “visual vocabulary” on how visual problems are, or can be, solved.

Quotes to Ponder: #0004

“For technical data—
the camera was faithfully used.”

~ Minor White

Lotus #786One of the things we tend to hear about and discuss the most is our equipment.  Which camera, lens, tripod etc should we be using or getting?

On Tuesday, I will present what I believe–and am confident you will agree (at least in time)–is the definitive answer to this question.

See you Tuesday!

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(“Quotes to Ponder” will be a regular feature here. My philosophy about quotes isn’t that they prove any point as they are often taken out of context or they may have been said in response to something we have no way of knowing about. But they generally do embody some sort of opinion or thought that can often be worthwhile pondering. I expect that in many cases, they will be the teaser to a longer discussion of their idea in a later post!)

Light: the one we love to hate–and then some…

Mid-day Summer Sun

Mid-day Summer Sun

(all photos can be seen larger by clicking on them, which will open a new window with the image)

One of the things that I have noticed about current photographic education is that it is, as I did with the title, filled with judgments—do’s and don’ts, should’s and shouldn’ts and such. Honestly, that probably isn’t the most beneficial way to stimulate creativity.

Maybe a better way, especially with light, is just to talk about its qualities. In fact, I would suggest that there really isn’t such a thing as bad light. There are just different characteristics to be found—and sometimes similarities that we don’t immediately recognize.

What is true is that there are times when the light, the subject and our intent (idea) may not be working together as we wish. Since we generally control the latter two, we often end up suggesting that the light was bad. But, then there are times when the “light is wonderful” and we just don’t see anything we want to photograph. Then we might say we weren’t in an area that was conducive to photography.

The funny thing is that I have never heard anyone suggest, in these types of situations, that it was their ideas that weren’t working or were bad! ……. Just something to think about!

But the light I thought I might address here is the one that we find directly, or nearly so, overhead in the middle of a summer day. Generally, this light is described as very cold (easily fixed with color balance), flat and harsh. The reality is that there are times we can use these same words to describe other light, light often thought of in much more positive terms, as well. That isn’t to suggest that they are the same but there are some similarities and those similarities might be more prevalent depending on your subject. (Golden hour light, for instance, can be very flat and harsh when it is on axis with where our camera is pointed) It should also be noted that there will be places, like deep canyons, that might only ever have direct light that reaches the bottom at high noon in the summer—for better or worse!

In a recent post on my other blog I started with this statement:

“…you would be less likely to find me photographing where, and when, I “thought” the light would be good than just photographing “where” the light is good—good for what I am trying to present in the photograph.”

Using mid-day summer light

Using mid-day summer light

It was when I was going through the images I created last May that I thought that this topic might be worthy of some attention. I remembered how lucky I was to stumble upon this wonderful site at the Solar Noon!  (the two images above)

It was this light, and only this light, that could bring out the textures and wonderful striations on the cliff face. It was like looking at an ancient seabed after the water subsided. In fact, before I even walked over to the Pictograph area, I spent quite a bit of time just shooting the patterns on the walls while still in the adjacent parking area.

It was also that the light was just a bit to the left that those wonderful patterns on the wall were shown as well as they are. Lower, more direct light would have minimized these shapes, whereas light more off to the right would have been less optimal (see the little uptick at the bottom that moves in the opposite direction from the larger “wave” form. It is almost imperceptible because the light is more parallel to it than perpendicular as it is on the larger, thus more defined, forms).

You might notice the “bird-like” head on the figure to the right (center of image), that doesn’t exist except in this light and I thought how wonderful that was and did the ancients see this and place their drawing there on purpose to use it? Since there were no other walls like this in the area, I have no doubt that it was the nature of these natural markings that attracted them to this site.

Although it was this high noon light that brought out the natural texture and markings, which gave this place a magical quality, this light wasn’t the best for documenting the figures themselves. The textures hid much of the more subtle detail—something that we understand, or should, could be a drawback of the strong angular light of our “golden hour” as well.

The images below, from Death Valley, show just how some more subtle details are stripped away by the strong side light of the golden hour.  The more diffuse light was created by directional skylight, with the directional nature coming from the glow from the horizon just prior to direct sun being able to sweep across the landscape—these two images were made within minutes of each other.  Each has its own characteristics that make them both successful images, just different, with the one on the right feeling a bit more “quiet”.

Comparison of detail lost with golden hour light vs diffuse light

Comparison of detail lost with golden hour light vs directional, diffuse light

Because I did want to document these wonderful paintings, I decided to wait for the light to move over the cliff so that I could photograph them in the diffuse skylight. I thought the comparison of how the “details” were lost by the strong light might be of interest here—these are both close-ups of that same figure with the bird-like head in the two different lights.

detail comparison

detail comparison

Note that the bird-like head disappears, as do the striations in the rock face, with the softer light. On the other hand, note that the graffiti around the painting is obliterated by the texture made visible in the strong angular light but materializes when only soft light hits the rock face.  And certainly, the true nature of the painting that was hidden in the strong textures is now revealed in our softer light.

note: This ancient art is located at the Buckhorn Wash Pictograph site and directions are easily found on-line—it’s west of Green River and Moab, Utah. You drive right up to these. This is one of the most impressive panels of ancient art I have seen, exceeded only by the Great Gallery, which is not too far to the east, although it requires a 7 mile hike and 800+ foot drop at the beginning—which means a steep climb out!

flat-light-compIn the image above, we can compare how direct sunlight and diffuse skylight–both of which can be characterized as “flat light”– can reveal very similar levels of detail.  Of course the sun here in the top version is above and not directly on the camera axis and thus we do get a little more texture than we might if it were more on that axis.

I might add here that light in early May is equivalent to how the light/sun travels in early August, it is just a lot cooler in May!

You might find this link valuable in seeing just how the sun travels at different times of the year in your area or in an area you intend to visit. (Unfortunately, the time zone doesn’t change when you move to a new time zone, so you need to interpolate.)

Using Harsh light and environment to express an idea

Using Harsh light and environment to express an idea

The image above was created in that midday sun and is an example of my interest in expressing an emotion and state of mind. I wasn’t interested in creating a romanticized interpretation of the landscape but rather a metaphor for how I felt at the time.

When I made this image I was still working in the corporate world and I was angry, frustrated and probably feeling a bit vulnerable. A brief synopsis of why: annual executive retreat in Palm Springs, two-day weekend golf tournament (my team, including President, won), weekend banquets with lots of frivolity and laughter, first morning of meetings (1/2 day only), President immediately suggests that no one may have a job by this time next year due to our not achieving our forecasted budget (our profits were only up 25% in an economic downturn that had not been taken into account in our budget process and our stock was soaring in an otherwise sluggish market—and people wonder why I left the Corporate World!)

So, there I was walking down a desert canyon, the mid-day sun beating down on me in what was a very harsh environment. Then I come to this “spiny” plant that is blocking my way to the Oasis that is just below-literally an oasis. Beyond, a 10,000 foot, cool and peaceful mountain range and I am stuck where I stand! I thought that, given my mental state, this was a very àpropos image to consider.

(you might also note how this flat light reveals a lot of detail in those areas where there is no shadow. This type of flat light, even though it is harsh sun, can show detail in much the same way as our diffuse skylight did in our examples above.)

And here, an example of a more rich, stark expression of the barren landscape of the desert southwest.Hatch-Mesa

Working commercially you often have to make images work in any light or condition. On the project for our national passenger rail system, which extended over two summers, I would try to scout locations during the middle of the day but would often find scenes that worked very well even in that mid day summer light.

In fact, one of the things that working commercially made me do was to “play” with light and techniques that I might never have explored otherwise.  Finding creative ways to use artificial light often meant using direct and often harsh light. These studio images, part of a larger campaign, used this same type of overhead light as our midday summer sun to create dramatic portraits. (a single light above that lights the subjects)

Single light overhead

Single light overhead


One of the concerns about shooting in bright, mid-day summer sun has always been the extreme dynamic range and the fear of ending up with blown highlights and blocked up shadows.  This was particularly an issue when one shot transparency, or “slide”, film as well as when one had their prints made from negatives by retail labs.  Even early digital cameras had a very short dynamic range.  Shooting jpegs, even with today’s digital cameras, can also limit the dynamic range of your image files.  But today’s sensor technology and shooting your images in RAW can generally end up with your ability to manage these extremes as long as you expose properly.  Of course, there are many advanced techniques, like blending brackets shot on a sturdy tripod, that can also handle this issue as can the judicious use of a reflector for smaller things such as portraits.  I say “judicious” as I often see reflectors overused and the image then can lose its natural look and the dramatic effect one might be after.

I would be a bit disingenuous if I left any suggestion here that this is a light that I generally go and search out. Although I do photograph all day, midday I am usually working in a shadow somewhere–if I am not taking a nap! But often I do see something in the direct sun that catches my attention and if my IDEA, the LIGHT and the SUBJECT are working together, there can be a wonderful photograph waiting…and, then, sometimes they don’t work anyway, but that happens in any light!

Please feel free to comment or ask questions about anything presented here, Thanks!

The Idea: Part 2

In Part 1, we explored the rationale behind the suggestion that every photograph starts with an idea. That even if we just make a quick snap of something, there was a reason for our taking the time and effort to do that and that we are, in fact, communicating something—an idea.

Once we understand that our images are about ideas, it makes it clear that our decisions, as to both technical and aesthetic considerations, should be made to maximize the clarity of our idea. If we don’t coordinate these things then we can end up with what Ansel Adams was referring to when he suggested a “sharp image of a fuzzy concept”!

Of course when we are beginning or even later on, we might just be trying out some technique and the idea contained within the photograph might be less important than our need to see how a technique works or doesn’t—or just how we get that technique to work. Trying out how things like shallow or deep depth of field are attained or allowing blur or stopping motion are important exercises. In these cases it is important to differentiate between the “idea” of testing something versus the creation of a meaningful photograph. Certainly, we can create a more meaningful photograph doing this, however, often the success is just in what we learned through the process.

In the quote I posted by Thoreau, he suggests that we don’t necessarily see what it is that we look at but maybe something else. Although he is most likely being a bit more philosophical, referring to how we interpret meaning (which should not be dismissed as unimportant in this discussion), there is a direct correlation to what we recognize visually as well. As I mentioned in that post, this can be the reason why we might not even notice something that the person right next to us gets excited about.  Even if we see the same thing, it may have a different meaning or significance to each of us.

I am sure that if you have gone out photographing with others you’ve noticed that although there might be some overlap in what each shoots, others will have seen and photographed things you didn’t. I know that when my wife and I are out shooting together we rarely come back having shot the same things—or even similar things for that matter.

Of course, we might also notice how when we do photograph the same things as others we might have interpreted the scene differently–although we might also note how often some of the most popular, well known places are photographed exactly the same way by, it seems, everybody!

A few years after I started photographing, I belonged to an informal group of photographers who all had met at various workshops with Ansel Adams and were all, primarily, landscape photographers.   We had regular meetings to critique each others prints and went on occasional field trips together.  At a print critique session following one such trip, five of us ended up presenting prints of the same part of a creek we had found at that site.  All of the images were different but by that time, I had started to move away from a more traditional interpretation of landscape and was more interested in metaphor and abstraction.  My image was quite a bit different than the others and reflected what was important to me.Stream, Devil's Punchbowl

Anais Nin put this idea a bit more directly when she suggests that “we don’t see things as they are, but as we are”. This is probably the most critical thing for us to recognize when it comes to our photographs or how we view the photographs of others or other forms of art.

What we photograph and how we interpret things tells us, and others, something about who we are. We reveal ourselves in what we create as well as how we interpret things.

For instance, that snapshot of me as a child in Part 1 suggests what was important to my mother.  While some of you might respond, with various amounts of enthusiasm, “what a cute little boy” –which I certainly was–others might suggest what a crappy, old, irrelevant snapshot, which is probably how I would react if it didn’t have all the emotional and contextual references that I connect with it. We’re just not all going to respond in the same way to everything, which is a good thing!

How we respond to things is directly drawn from what I will refer to as our Core and something that Stephen Shore refers to as our Mental Model in his book “The Nature of Photographs”*.  This Core is the sum of all of our life experiences including our upbringing, education and conditioning and how we responded and interpreted all of those things we were exposed to. This Core can be very different even between siblings who shared a great number of the same experiences. It defines who we are as people and how we think about the world.

CoreAs a visual person, I like to picture things in my mind and this “fuzzy ball” posted above is my, albeit imperfect, interpretation of how our Core might look.

At the center are those things that are most solid and stable and those that are the most difficult to change or dislodge. These might be our core values and ethics as well as other things we KNOW are absolutely true and which are most important to us. But even here, these things can change over time as we gain new insights and information. I think most of us can probably identify things that we were absolutely “sure” of when we were younger that we now think about, or look at, in a completely different way. The size of this solid area will vary with each person and personality.  Often, what resides in this area can make us reject or accept something without further question or analysis–for better or worse.

The more diffuse areas are those areas where things we have been exposed to or learned about are processed and stored. The more strongly we feel about these, the more solid or dense they become while the more diffuse areas might be things we are figuring out or which we have less conviction about.

This area might be where we hold observed current trends and might be the reason we would think it cool to photograph our food and post it to social media, if for no other reason.

What could be cooler than a pile of Texas BBQ and a table set for 4?

What could be cooler than a pile of Texas BBQ and a table set for 4?

As we learn something new or are exposed to alternative ways of thinking, they enter this area. At times, they might just float around without seeming to have any relevance to us or how we think. But then one day, some of these might become more relevant either because of new information we obtain or something we confront brings them into focus and they begin to make more sense to us. This can be a long process or a revelation.

This Core is not only the basis for how we respond and interpret things but it is also what we draw on as the source of our creativity. Creativity isn’t the application of a rote technique or rule but rather our ability to connect things—often disparate things—we have learned into a new form or way of responding. We will discuss creativity in depth later.

In Shore’s book, he suggests how as photographers we are exposed to a visual stimulus as we search out our photographs and that those visual stimuli interact with, and adjust, our Mental Model and that in turn modifies our perception which then interacts again with our Mental Model and further modifies our perception of things and so on—in essence, we learn and grow through the act of photographing.

My own experience is that everything we expose ourselves to will affect our Mental Model/Core and that our growth as photographers is not just through learning technical or aesthetic concerns in connection with our interests in photography but through exposing ourselves to other art, literature, music, movies etc. as well as just allowing for new experiences and exploring other ways of thinking about things—including photography. I know that for me, these were the activities–including much time investigating art/photography I didn’t understand–that affected my photography more than just learning how to make a photograph. This is my reason for this blog and the types of entries I make here.

In The Idea: Part 3, we will explore how Idea can work in various ways and on different levels in our photography. Later entries will also explore some of these concepts further, in different contexts and from different angles.

My next post here, on Thursday, will explore something more practical, the characteristics of light, the one we generally love to hate!

In the meantime, please feel free to leave and comments or questions.

You can find “The Idea: Part 3” here

or “The Idea: Part 1” here.

*This book by Stephen Shore is deceptively simple and can be read in a half hour or so. I have read it several times and it is one of those books that can reveal new things each time we read it and digest more of the concepts he presents.

Quotes to Ponder: #0003

“We don’t see things as they are;

we see things as we are.”

~Anais Nin

This quote takes our previous one from Henry David Thoreau, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see”, a step further.  Not only do we not necessarily see or recognize the same things as one another, but our interpretation of what we do see–even similar information–can be unique to us.  It is the reason we might like to photograph one thing, say landscape, while our friend might prefer something else that we avoid, possibly something with more personal contact, like portraiture.  In the same vein, it is why we like some art and don’t necessarily respond to others.  This is all part of what we will be exploring in our next post here: “The Idea: Part 2”.

*          *          *

(“Quotes to Ponder” will be a regular feature here. My philosophy about quotes isn’t that they prove any point as they are often taken out of context or they may have been said in response to something we have no way of knowing about. However, they generally do embody some sort of opinion or thought that can often be worthwhile pondering. I expect that in many cases, they will be the teaser to a longer discussion of their idea in a later post!)

Analysis of an Image: #0002

(unless I have the author’s permission, I will not post images by others but rather links to the subject images which will be set to open in another window or tab. I suggest opening two browser windows, side by side, to assist in looking while reading.)

As I mentioned in the last post, we are going to take a look at a second image by Henry Wessel .

This image is, at least on the surface, a simple visual with relatively few elements. But I don’t think it is a simplistic image by any means.

Title: El Cerrito, California 1972
View the image here
(Alternate-slightly smaller)

Rather than breaking the analysis into the three distinct part as I did in the last entry, I will combine them here. I will still mark the Principles of Design/Composition* in red and capitalize the specific name of the principle or create it in parenthesis when needed for clarity.

As we first look at this image, I don’t think we can help but focus our attention immediately on the planter and even more so on the vertical “shaft” that dominates the center, and most of the height, of this image (Emphasis). Of course, we also recognize the strong symmetrical Balance of the image as well.

Wessel’s typical treatment of light, pushing the whites in the image to near their limit of detail and leaving his shadows very open (Value) leaves little in this image to pull our attention away from this central Shape (Emphasis—the plant/shaft and Subordination—the shadows).

The only other dark objects here are the two sets of windows that bleed off the side of the frame. The fact that they are nearly identical and balanced symmetrically serves to subordinate them to our central subject.

I do think it is important to notice that these windows have signs for various brands of beer, telling us that this was created outside of a bar. The reason I go to “bar” rather than “diner” is not just the variety of beers advertised but also the 2×4 framing and covering of the windows that we see behind these beer signs—diners don’t generally cover up their windows.  Regardless, the beer signs are more significant than the type of establishment.

With our attention focused on this central shaft/plant that appears very straight and tall, we then notice the incongruent “bent” shadow that it casts—what gives!

My feeling is that Wessel just saw the irony of this, the visual play and created a composition that emphasized this.

I also think that the image works as a commentary on the act of photographing. How our choice of “Point of View”(where we stand), along with other factors and choices we might use, can change or distort reality. Going deeper, isn’t that maybe the same with regards to how we look at our world more philosophically, is our perspective giving us truth or distortion or maybe a bit of both?

Of course, we can also have some fun with the connection to the alcohol represented here. How we might stand straight before we come in contact with this establishment but maybe not so much once we do. And, well, there might be a similar connection with regards to sexual performance as well.

This is probably one of my favorite images by Wessel.

At this point, I want to make some specific observations about the composition that might seem out of whack to many reading this.

In a couple of posts now I have referenced how centering our subject is very effective at clarifying our subject—bringing Emphasis to it. This flies pretty much in the face of what most amateurs are taught and have pounded into them from day one, that the center should be avoided at all costs. But the point is, actually, that we should be making compositional decision that make our intent for the image the most clear.  As you look at more photographs by the masters, you will see many that put the subject at or very near the center for this specific reason.

For instance, as I mentioned above, placing this “plant” in the center, against this white area definitively makes it our subject and brings its odd shadow into play as an important contrasting element. All the other elements here are subordinated to these two things.

If we now take our hand and crop this image–either vertically–leaving little room on either side of the planter and the shadow of the “plant–or maybe a square, cropping from the left—I think we can see how the windows to the right become more dominant than they are in the original. We might still notice the contradictory shadow and object, but the message has been diluted. In fact, we might even start looking for or thinking about  the “design” interplay/relationships between the three objects—window, plant and shadow–a consideration which is absent with the original composition.

The second thing I wanted to mention, also something often noted on amateur photo sharing sites, is the fact that we have a slight tilt of the image to the right—“the horizon isn’t level”, if you will.

First of all, I will suggest that photographing architecture at a 90 degree angle like this, even with a tripod and a ground glass with a leveling grid and level, is difficult–you also have to get the film plane perfectly parallel to the wall, which is actually the most difficult thing to do.  I have been photographing architectural subjects for over 30 years and this type of shot, straight on, is the one I hate most! That isn’t an excuse or explanation, just a flat fact!

But, regardless, I actually didn’t even notice this until I started my detailed analysis of the image. Why, because it really isn’t relevant to the message of this image. This image has a lot of content and isn’t about architecture or formalism. In fact, I think it was more important to Wessel to keep this central “plant” as straight up vertical as he could and that is how he saw it in the viewfinder. It still leans a bit left but the verticality of it is more pertinent to the comparison/contrast with the shadow, which I believe was his main concern. Sometimes this sort of thing does matter and that can be for various reasons, including the intent of the image or the genre.  On the other hand, it can often be overly noted when critiquing images but then it is often just an easy and objective comment (it’s hard to be wrong that something is canted one way or the other).  I will admit that for many of my own images, this is an important concern to me.  But in an image like this, not so much.

note:  Oddly, the “alternate” link to the image, from SFMOMA, appears to have been cropped to level the “horizon” and was probably done by the tech who posted the image.

* I have been using the term Principles of Design/Composition as a shorthand for the foundational principles of composition which are commonly referred to as the Elements of Art (point, line, shape/Mass, light/value, space, color, pattern/texture, time and motion) and the Principles of Design (unity/variety, emphasis/subordination, balance, scale/proportion, rhythm) in both the Art and Design worlds. We will be looking at these in more depth in the future.

Again, please feel free to share any of your own comments, observations or questions.  We learn from each other.

Analysis of an Image: #0001

(unless I have the author’s permission, I will not post images by others but rather links to the subject images which will be set to open in another window or tab. I suggest opening two browser windows, side by side, to assist in looking while reading.)

Since we just had a post on Henry Wessel, I thought it might be interesting to start off this feature, Analysis of an Image, with a couple of his images. These will be done in separate posts as they will be fairly detailed. There will be a later post that will investigate in more depth “how to look at photographs” to get the most out of them. Here, I will be following the most commonly recognized format for analyzing images. This first image is rather difficult to find on the internet as a still image–at least in more than one place. As such, I will be giving a reference to it within a video we saw in the last post in case the first reference below, a still image, later disappears from the internet. My apologies that I can’t find a larger example, however, I think it is an image worth our attention.

Title: San Francisco, 1977
view the image here
(alternative: at 1:38 in this video)

Description: (One of the most important, and revealing, things we can do when looking at, or analyzing, an image is to start by physically describing its contents, item by item. This might sound simplistic but it is amazing how many things we can miss by looking at the image as a whole, as is our more natural way of looking. In fact, I discovered several things I hadn’t considered before while preparing this analysis.)

This is a neutral tone black and white photograph.  Four people are standing in a line, widely spaced, on a city sidewalk in front of, and against, an approximately 4-1/2 foot tall chain link fence. The fence has been “slatted” to prevent our seeing through it although we can see over it. The people and the fence are to the right of the camera’s position and the oblique angle of view causes both to recede in size from right to left.

It appears to be a clear day with the sun at about 30 degrees above the horizon (shadows) and is hitting our subjects from the left of the frame and slightly behind–over their right shoulder.  There are no building shadows coming in from the left, indicating that there are no high rise building near this location in that direction.

Visually, these four professionally dressed people are equally spaced at a distance that would make interaction between them difficult. Each faces to the right of the frame and appears to be looking along the fence line—except in the case of a one-way street, this would be in the direction of on-coming traffic.

The largest figure, and furthest to the right of the frame, appears to be a middle-aged African-American man dressed in a dark, 3-piece suit. He leans against the fence with his left leg crossing over his right. He holds a crisp newspaper at his side with his right hand while his left hand is on his chin with that elbow resting on the top of the fence. His tie is up and tight and his vest all buttoned up. He looks, like the others, freshly dressed.

The second figure in the line is also a male in a suit and tie. He is white, as are the others pictured here, with white hair and is probably in his 60’s. He stands erect next to the fence, suit coat buttoned up and is reading his newspaper that is held in both hands.

The third figure is a woman.  She is the youngest of the four, maybe late 20’s or so, and is dressed in a pantsuit. Although she has her forearm resting on the top of the fence, she is not leaning into it but stands very erect with her right hand at her side, over the purse that hangs from her shoulder.

The fourth figure is also a woman, middle-aged, in a dress with what appears to be a dark but lightweight coat tightly belted around her. She seems to be the shortest of the four and leans her shoulder against the fence with her hands in her pockets. Her purse hangs off her shoulder higher than the younger woman’s and is tightly positioned under her right elbow.

Generally, we describe what is in a photograph, however, given our current culture one must recognize the lack of personal electronic devices in this image. Along with the nature of the clothes, this might help us determine the date of this image if we didn’t already know it from the title.

The sidewalk appears to be fairly wide, however, the part these people stand on is a relatively thin strip of asphalt. Bordering this strip of asphalt, to the left and against the bottom edge of the frame, we see two diamond plate doors that are closed, flat and flush with the sidewalk. Receding behind these doors along the sidewalk, and continuing at the same width, we see three 13×13 square grids of small glass blocks set in light concrete. This structure of the doors and grids has a similar visual width as the height of the fence. In the lower left corner of the frame, we see an indication that the sidewalk’s width likely extends further.

There are several shadows of people outside of the frame to the left between the two women at the back of this line of 4. These shadows indicate that some are just outside the frame while others are several feet further away—or really short!

Beyond the fence, in the distance, although we don’t see their tops, we can recognize the structure of modern high rise buildings. Closer in, we see familiar mid and low-rise buildings of earlier periods. Those closest, behind the older gentleman, appear to be early light manufacturing or warehouse type buildings. The “$1.29 all day” parking sign, with its arrow, in the upper left corner gives us a hint at what we don’t see in the space immediately behind the fence.

Composition: (The Principles of Design/Composition noted as having been used are in red type for easy identification–the actual terms are capitalized or added in parentheses.)

The oblique angle of the camera creates a strong triangular compositional Shape as the diagonal lines of the fence, sidewalk detail, close edge of the background buildings and even the implied Line created between the people’s heads and feet, all move towards convergence beyond the left edge of the image. This Movement to the left is slowed by the staccato Rhythm of the evenly spaced people against the more homogenous fence.  Their gaze, to the right, moves our eyes back in that direction creating a back and forth scanning of the image.

The people are emphasized (Emphasis) in this composition by their relatively large proportions (Proportion) within the frame as well as their placement through the center and foreground of the image. Their presence is further strengthened by the fact that the lightly textured (Texture) but homogenous fence isolates them and their strong shadows from the background.

Image Balance is achieved by the placement of the larger figure in his dark suit and his dark shadow to the right while the two smallest figures are placed to the left.  The white-haired gentleman acts as the fulcrum. The light sky and buildings at the top of the image are offset by the light Pattern of the glass block structure in the sidewalk, which also echoes the window patterns on the mid ground buildings—especially the one in the opposite corner of the image.

At the same time, the steel doors at the bottom of the image, along with the man on the right, Balance the darker buildings above. Those doors and buildings each echoes the others finely textured surface–at least visually.

I personally feel that having not included the tops of the skyscrapers helped to simplify the image.  At the same time, I like the inclusion of the steel doors/glass blocks in the sidewalk.  This gives us something nice to discover and adds some interest in an area that could have been very bland if it was solid asphalt or concrete.  The fact that these echo the buildings’ Pattern and Texture is a nice bonus.  I also feel that having this more expansive Space at the bottom of the frame further emphasizes the people as the subject. Even if we can determine that these people are not actually evenly spaced (Space), the visual effect of equal spacing causes these people to unify (Unity) as our primary subject.


I personally like this image quite a bit as I was also wearing 3 piece suits and commuting into California’s largest city during this same decade—the scene is familiar. What I feel Wessel presents us with is an image of isolation by choice rather than by any need or external factor.

Although one’s attention is occupied with his newspaper, the others stare off in what is likely the direction of the oncoming public transportation, avoiding contact with those around them. This transportation would be headed towards the city center that appears a distance behind them–and their jobs. Rather than stand and wait along the edge of the street, near the foot traffic and possible interaction with others, they have placed themselves against the fence, spaced generously from their like-minded cohorts.

The fence and the space between each, as well as the moat-like steel door/glass block sidewalk detail, all provide a buffer from possible interactions with others. Wessel give us hints that it is even likely that these four people see each other on a regular basis, if not daily.  And yet, they choose to isolate themselves.

We are not sure of the safety of the area, as both women seem to be holding their purses tightly rather than setting them down even though they seem far from others.

It is true, that I have read a lot of detail into this image, however, I do think there are indicators within the frame, which I described above, that give credibility to these interpretations. I should say, though, that regardless if these assumptions are right or just my own “story”, the image still conveys the main message of chosen isolation. The details inferred beyond the actual structure of the image and the things we absolutely know just add depth to the interpretation of the image.

The professional dress hints strongly that these are 8-5 workers rather than swing or graveyard employees. The low sun indicates either morning or late afternoon—probably near summer as it is already very light—indicative of the longer days of summer—and they don’t wear warm coats or other warming accessories.

I suggest that they are going to work for several reasons. First, they wait by a commuter parking lot—given away by the cheap “all day” parking sign, which Wessel graciously included. Also these types of parking lots are generally on the edge of the primary business areas, as indicated by the surroundings here, and one either walks or takes local transportation the rest of the way in to work.

If it were the afternoon, they would probably not be waiting here, even if they took public transportation all the way from home to work, as the “connections” are not generally off in these secondary areas.

Other clues to their going to work include the inferred direction of their travel, towards the city center and their “buttoned-up” and fresh appearance. Certainly, I have seen people maintain this look after work, but here none have loosened their ties, vests or coats, which would be more common once one was out of the primary business area and on their way home.

Again, because I have commuted to work like this, I infer that these people likely see each other regularly. If one just parked and walked, it might be less likely but when one has to wait for the same public transportation on a daily basis, it is more likely that one would see the same people on a regular basis.

Although I did identify the African-American male here, I don’t personally believe that there are any racial overtones in this image whereas Garry Winogrand’s World’s Fair, New York City, 1964 has long been considered as such. Of course, Winogrand’s image was created during a turbulent time in the civil rights movement here in the states. Given the current affairs within the US, it is hard to not consider this however, I don’t believe there were any prominent issues in 1977, although the ratio of people of color in the professional ranks of major California cities was low—and may still be.

Even though we have done a fairly complete analysis of this image, the image still holds many unanswered mysteries, questions and possibilities.  These are the things that give an image life and allow it to continue to challenge and inform us.

Please feel free to share any of your own observations or questions about the approach here–or conclusions.  We learn from each other.

A Photographer to Know: Henry Wessel

Henry Wessel was introduced to photography during college(early 1960’s) and was immediately hooked on how the camera rendered the world. Within a decade he had already received a Guggenheim Fellowship, had a one person show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and started and finished a Masters in Fine Art.

His photography seems to me to straddle a few different genres: landscape, street and social documentary. But what really stands out for me is the way he renders light as almost searing his subjects, as well as his sense of the ironic and humorous.

Henry’s work was included in the 1975 seminal exhibition, the “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape”, which had-and continues to have– a significant impact on the field of photography– especially landscape photography. This work signaled a shift away from the traditional, romanticized view of the world that we recognize in work by people like Ansel Adams to one of a more detached view of man’s interaction with the land.

Personally, it took me years to warm up to this new work but, then, I had my nose buried in my own photographic interests and there weren’t many resources (no internet) available as there are today, which is a wonderful thing for those interested in learning and developing.

Although I knew the work of most of the photographers included in the New Topographics group, Wessel somehow escaped my radar. When I first saw his work, just a few years ago, I was really surprised that he had been part of that group based on the limited images I had seen. His work seemed to have more of a point of view and personality than often attributed to that group. It was much more like some of the street photographers I was aware of, such as Garry Winogrand and maybe even a little Lee Friedlander.

As I researched his work more deeply, I did find images that were more in line with the New Topographics group, however, even if those seemed more “banal”, the way he used light and shadow was amazing—and different than what we see more commonly.

When we encounter things that are done in a different way than we might do them, giving it our attention isn’t a matter liking or disliking or of our wanting to copy or emulate a style. The value is that in looking and noticing we can gain knowledge of alternative ways of doing things. We see how doing something different can affect a subject and the look of a photograph. This allows us to store this information in our “bag of tricks” as it were and gives us more information to draw on to realize our intent for one of our photographs. Drawing on these resources doesn’t just mean a linear, or direct use of something we’ve learned but maybe we make a more random connection between things that seem unrelated and we end up solving a problem in a unique way.

So, in addition to looking into his work for those wonderful moments of irony and humor, it is worth notice how he uses light in a different way than we might. Notice how he often uses a frontal, or nearly frontal (light from behind his position), light and how he allows his exposure to push the limits of the brightness of the image. His use of flash is on-camera and unapologetic, he wants to “draw” his subject with that searing light.

My initial exposure to Wessel was through the first video below and I really appreciated his passion for photography and his comments on his way of working—as well as the photographs. What he presents here with regards to the “animalistic” response might seem contradictory to some of what we have covered in The Idea: Part I, but we will be addressing how this all comes together in Part II.

These next two videos cover more of his work and his philosophy and way of working. They are both wonderful to watch—I continually return to these and have probably watched each 10 times while preparing this post. There is always some new thought that catches my attention with each viewing—probably because when I hear one, my mind races off and I don’t hear what comes after that until the next time I watch it!

So, “Let me take you on a walk and we’ll start here…”  excerpt from the last video.

I’d love to hear your comments on Henry or any part of this presentation.

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“A Photographer to Know” will be one of the regular features of this blog. The purpose is to present the work of recognized artists in the field that may not be as widely known to most. Liking or not isn’t the purpose, but rather it is about exposure to what others are doing and/or how others are thinking about or using our medium. By looking at the work of artists in any medium, we can build our own “visual vocabulary” on how visual problems are, or can be, solved.

Quotes to Ponder: #0002

“It’s not what you look at that matters,

it’s what you see”

~Henry David Thoreau

Honestly, I don’t expect to make a posting each day, but when I ran across this quote I just thought it fit so well with the last post and where we will be going when we get to The Idea: Part 2.

In the last post, I talked about responding to what we see and I think it is important to remember that we don’t all see things the same way.  This isn’t just with more abstract ideas, but we often don’t interpret what we see visually in the same way as another.  In fact, we often don’t even see something that the person standing right next to us might get very excited about.  This whole mechanism is very human and is something we are going to probably talk about a lot as we go along–it is certainly something worth thinking about as photographers–or even just as mere human beings!

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(“Quotes to Ponder” will be a regular feature here. My philosophy about quotes isn’t that they prove any point as they are often taken out of context or they may have been said in response to something we have no way of knowing about. But they generally do embody some sort of opinion or thought that can often be worthwhile pondering. I expect that in many cases, they will be the teaser to a longer discussion of their idea in a later post!)