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Lehigh River with Bethlehem Steel Factory at Sunset

The Invision conference in Bethlehem has evolved into that rarest of opportunities for photographers –  a confab combining inspiring presentations by photographers, well curated exhibitions of work, and a chance to interact with local photographers in a friendly, unpressured way. It started four years ago as special event sponsored by ArtsQuest, a local group that sponsors several festivals, notably MusicQuest, and hundreds of events across the arts from film to music to pottery, catering to all ages and interests. The festival largely took place at the SteelStacks, ArtsQuest’s marvelous facility on the grounds of the abandoned Bethlehem Steel factory. Olympus, in an encouraging move, has taken on co-sponsorship of the festival, which takes place just a few miles from their US headquarters.

I had a Sunday obligation, so I arrived in the Lehigh Valley, a quick drive from Philadelphia, on Friday. The weekend kicked off with a reception at the Banana Factory, a combination galley and arts workspace in South Bethlehem. Winning work from the student and Pennsylvania photographer contests occupied galleries and hallways, and artist in residence Gene Richards’ photos were displayed in marvelous 20×30 black and white prints in an exhibition. One room was dedicated to Olympus Visionaries and Trailblazers, and I saw local portrait Victor Rodriquez, who will be appearing at my club next year. The Santa Bannon gallery, located in the same building, hosted talks by several of her photographers.

I had always wanted to meet Richards. I used to sell Aperture books to bookstores, so I spent a lot of time during the early nineties introducing book buyers to challenging work like Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue and Americans We.  Richards was cordial and available at the reception, and I was able to introduce myself as someone who peddled his work, which delighted him.

The publishing model for expensive books has changed over the past few years, with online sales producing a huge differential between what a bricks and mortar retailer can charge and what a consumer pays online. Contrary to what the talking heads will tell you, the lower prices have not created greater sales, as many illustrated books must be seen and handled to be fully appreciated. Richards and his engaging wife and creative partner, Janine Altongy, have used a crowd-sourcing strategy for his latest works, which include books and some short videos.

Having talked about his books for years, I was anxious to hear what he had to say. His talk the next day did not disappoint. Full of warmth and zeal, illustrated by striking photos and short form videos, the low key photographer’s presentation created a high profile impression. His experiences with African villagers, drug addicts, mental patients produced photographs with an unmediated, intimate viewpoint that illuminates not just their plight but their manifest virtues. Right after I got home from Bethlehem, I read a shallow editorial that dismissed most documentary photography as “white guy photography,” incapable of rising above its makers’ privilege and inherently condescending. While purporting to deride projects that lack context or social value, such an article serves little purpose, somewhat like attacking photos of children and cats because they exploit sentimentality and cuteness without being artful or advancing a cause. Turn the page, buddy. Five minutes with Eugene Richards will convince anyone that probing communities and people under stress is a situation where “privilege” vanishes. The currency becomes not status or cash but rather conviction and trust. Creating moving photographs in those places and times requires perseverance, empathy, vision – humanity.

The other talk I attended was Chase Jarvis. I have become a big fan of his pet project, CreativeLive, a free stream of webinars and demonstrations he founded in Seattle. Jarvis makes an interesting contrast with Richards. Jarvis exudes a high energy persona, and he revels in having built a successful commercial photography business and having access to big names in entertainment. He strikes me as more a director than a pure artist; he knows instinctively how to assemble talent and get results, but I doubt anyone will mount a retrospective of his photography in 50 years. He started by reading a short bio of Ansel Adams, who surprisingly practiced the same sort of active photographic life – playing at parties, assembling talent, distributing his work widely for cheap – even though we know him now primarily as an artist. Jarvis’ diverse projects involve photographing movers and shakers in Seattle, assembling musicians and poets for dinners, and of course CreativeLive. Like Richards, he was very generous with his time. His ability to catalyze artists and promote photography among arts is unmatched. His social commitment was very different from Richards but equally valuable.

Next year, I will stay the whole weekend. As an Olympus shooter, I enjoyed seeing the new gear and speaking to the techs, the marketing people, and of course, the top pros who use Oly. The folks I stayed with bed and breakfast were marvelous hosts, and I find a Bethlehem a congenial and photogenic venue – more shots below.

Change and no change

Change and no change in the historic district north of the river.

Bethlehem mixes a beautiful setting with a fading industrial economy

South Bethlehem blends a lovely setting with hard edged modern infrastructure.

The fading sun gives color to fading industry

 Dizzying and rusty stacks
A closer look reveals an intricate system more beautiful as it becomes less useful.
The geometry of industry provides opportunity for silhouettes

The geometry of factories provided opportunity for silhouettes

Expo Floor (image courtesy PDN PhotoPlus Expo)

I made my annual trek to that dismal tinkertoy creation Javits Center for the biggest annual gathering of photographers and suppliers on the East Coast, PhotoPlus Expo.

The trade show portion is not quite as big as it used to be, probably due to the recent spike in lodging costs in Manhattan and airfare costs in general. However, the number of photographers and their enthusiasm has not diminished. PhotoPlus allows you the rare opportunity to handle all the merchandise, see all the software demonstrated, and check out the newest publications and services, with people on hand who can comprehensively answer questions and gather feedback. Some of the most personal gear decisions, such as what bag to carry and which tripod is right for your purpose, can best be made by actually trying out all the options in person, and no bricks and mortar camera store stocks everything. Innovators can get your attention without having to compete with all the white noise on the internet and the biases of retailers heavily invested in the status quo, figuratively and literally.

I visited Olympus immediately to put my hands on the new EM1. The mood in the booth was electric; Olympus took the risk of announcing the camera in advance of the show, and it paid off, as uniformly positive reviews pushed traffic to the booth. I overheard one woman saying “I didn’t feel like my Canon M was up to shooting that assignment in Paris, but I would have taken this one in a heartbeat.” I met the head of the Olympus Visionary program, and she introduced me to my “local” visionary, Victor Rodriguez, who will be presenting to our camera club later in the year, I hope. (I also ran into visionary David Wells, whom I met in Amherst last year, at SNYC.)  I did handle the EM1, a very pocketbook-endangering experience. The camera balances solidly in the hand, and the new pro lens (12-40mm f/2.8, to be joined by a 40-150 f/2.8 next year) has that wonderful machined feel as well. I am no fan of electronic viewfinders, but the Epson unit on the EM-1 is acceptable for most uses.

I also stopped by c’t digital photography, who publish the best technically oriented photo magazine out there and the comprehensive and attractive Rocky Nook books. The folks from Santa Barbara were, as usual, friendly and engaging. I also stopped by Focal Press to catch up with Sloane Stinson and thank them for their generous club programs. I looked at the books on display that I had not noticed on the

In the past few years, ink jet printing has progressed to the point where gallery class printing is available to photographers who print themselves. To that end, I approached several vendors including Moab, Hahnemühle, Red River, and Carson, who all agreed to contribute sample papers if I created a printing education program for our local clubs. Epson said their local dealer network would likely be interested in helping us run it.

I no longer take the seminars offered by PDN at the Expo. Now that ample instruction is available via Lynda, Kelby and Creative Live for a cost ranging from free to reasonable, I find it silly to spend for two hours as much as I would spend for a downloaded three day course from CL or three months of Kelby or Lynda. The PDN seminars are not intimate enough to earn the premium. There was even a free alternative just down the street.

Interactive Shoot-NYC Demo Area

Interactive Shoot-NYC Demo Area

Intimate seminars

Intimate seminars (photos courtesy Broncolor Shoot-NYC)

That was Shoot-NYC, two free days of seminars and demos sponsored by Hasselblad and Broncolor. It’s not for everyone – the emphasis fell on studio, location, and corporate photography. and its promotion of a very expensive camera and high end studio lighting gear was unabashed. The purpose is to introduce emerging photographers to their gear and to solid studio and business practices. Serious professionals know that it is the archer not the arrows that matters, but HasselBron realizes that your job is easier if you have a reliable bow on your shoulder and straight arrows in your quiver. Photography is problem-solving, and the more you can concentrate on solving photographic quandaries, not dealing with technical shortcomings, the better.

The Shoot-NYC seminars feature dynamic presenters, and the converted warehouse building and its cramped rooms, is more intimate that what you find at a Javits seminar. With only two classrooms and a small trade floor sandwiched in between, you get to spend a lot of time with the teachers and seasoned pros. The gear is pretty intimidating, but it is nice to see what is available and what it is capable of producing. I left with loads of ideas.

I had a great two days in New York with minimal damage to my wallet, though the knock-on effect of my visit to the Olympus booth has yet to materialize.

http://rockynook.com/img/cover/large//155.jpg

© 2010 Rocky Nook

240 pages

ISBN: 978-1-933952-56-7

Price: $39.95 (French flapped paperback)

I obtained this book in advance of a trip to Yellowstone National Park. Having never shot wildlife before, I was looking for some guidance.

The author is clear in his foreword that this book emerges from his experiences as a professional photographer and workshop guide in the Serengeti region of East Africa. The book is obviously of greatest utility to those who are planning a trip to that region, as much of the text details the natural features and wildlife there, but nearly a quarter of the book deals with general concepts of wildlife photography that apply to a wide variety of situations outside of East Africa. The part of the book that deals specifically with the Serengeti is useful as well. By following the author’s careful planning and execution of a successful safari shoot, one can develop one’s own method of researching the venue and local wildlife, as well as the practical matters, such as transportation, permissions, time of day, and applicable regulations.

The section on equipment, as with all books of this sort, is the weakest. With quickly advancing camera technology, the specific gear cited is soon outdated. Skrzypczak usefully ties specific recommendations to general principles (range of focal lengths, dynamic range, speed, depth of field, noise), but he often indulges in unsubstantiated generalities – was the 2007 generation of APS-C digital cameras really considered by anyone to be equivalent to 4.5×6 cm roll film? – and sometimes is downright wrong, as when he says that vibration reduction in lenses “increases the brightness of the lens by up to four additional f-stops.” On the plus side, he does alert the potential wildlife shooter that the enterprise costs big money, and that a lower budget means making hard choices, as does the need to travel light.

The sections on technique and composition are where the book really shines. Skrzypczak’s explanation of the use of the various autofocus options is the best I have ever encountered, and he includes a helpful graphic with each photograph in the book indicating which AF choice is best for each situation.  Similarly, each of his excellent technical and composition suggestions is put into practice in the chapters of the book which narrate his photography during each of the seasons of the year. The importance of learning the behavior of the wildlife also moves into the foreground, as that knowledge contributes both to the opportunities afforded to get the best shots and the safety of the photographer and the animals themselves. Also, as I always say, photography is problem solving, and seeing how he copes with tricky situations makes the reader a nimbler shooter. Protect highlights or let them go? Subject close up or in context? Background sharp or blurred? Preserve textures or edges? Shoot fast or wait?  One learns how to make all these choices instinctively, which becomes valuable when opportunities are fleeting and time tight.

The prose is clumsy and wooden in spots, but generally serviceable. The book was originally published in Germany, so I suspect that either the author or an editor translated it. The excellent photographs and the marvelous balance of informative text and images make the safari chapters the sort of narrative that one can dip into for a page or just an image at a time, if one likes, or read all the way through for a thorough idea of how an expert shoots wildlife.

I would warn the casual wildlife photographer away, but there is no such thing. This sort of shooting requires serious preparation and substantial financial investment in travel, guides, and gear, either through purchases or rentals. Anyone ready to take on a serious wildlife excursion would definitely benefit from this resource.

 

Lemonade

My sister called me from Yellowstone the day before I was to board the train to tell me that the government shutdown meant that the park would be closed to visitors, effectively scuttling my trip. I have always thought that puerile Tea Party nonsense was damaging to the country as a whole, but this time it was personal.

I was attending the New Atlantic Booksellers fall trade show when I got the call, so I had to quickly cancel all my hotel reservations, my lens rental, and of course the train. One bag had been checked ahead on Amtrak. They had already sent it on an earlier train – no one said they would do that – and they were totally incapable of locating the bag. The baggage department did not know which train was carrying it, when it would arrive in Chicago, or when it would make its way to Whitefish. A rude fellow in Philly answered my query about which train by saying “It’s gone!” and hanging up. Chicago said they would track it down and call me back. They didn’t. A guy on the Amtrak customer service phone tried to help but admitted that they had no system beyond the tags for tracking bags. When I questioned that from a security standpoint, he called it a “side issue.” It finally ended up all the way out in Whitefish, Montana. The attendant there said he would check it back to Philly on the next train, but that was a week ago. It’s a three day ride. (Update: the day after I posted this, I got a call from Amtrak saying my bag was in Philly. They treated it as lost luggage, so injury was not added to insult by being charged shipping fees.)

My friend Duke had his trip to Acadia National Park snafued as well, so he took the time off to go to upstate NY for some waterfall shooting. He had for several years spent the first week in October taking a photo seminar in the Adirondacks, so he thought it would be a good substitute. After three days of dealing with hotels, luggage bozos, and other issues, I decided to join him in Ithaca for two days.

The weather predictions were suspect, but the two days served up perfect conditions for fall shooting – not cold, not too warm, not sunny, but not dark overcast either. Very little wind blew, and the only moisture came from the rock walls around us. Life gave us sour citrus, so we crushed and sweetened.

I arrived in Ithaca around lunchtime Thursday to find Duke snoozing in his car in the parking lot at Buttermilk Falls. Duke’s back gives him problems, so we parked a car at each end of the gorge so that the walk would be downhill.  It’s also the most efficient way to cover a narrow ravine, since you don’t double back over the same ground.

By nature a portrait photographer, I just love looking through a lens at the world. My cousin Jack is an accomplished nature shooter, so I always felt I could never produce work like his and didn’t try. Yellowstone would have been my first serious wildlife shoot, and I was looking forward to spending a week doing nothing but honing my skills.

Duke shoots nature and macro. Some architecture. Never people if he can help it. He claims not to even like people very much, belied by his friendly manner and his ability to attract loquacious strangers rivaling mine. I have learned a great deal from him about shooting nature; we go out to Longwood Gardens about once a month and capture the flora close up.

Last week was the first time, however, that I had spent serious time photographing waterfalls. I grew up in a swampy area so flat that you could not find a spot that you could place a marble and it would move. The local river flowed so slowly that it was called the Tar. Aside from a trip to the Delaware Water Gap a few years ago, where our camera club spent an hour or two shooting Childs Park and Dingmans Falls, I hadn’t spent much time on it. I had only recently ditched my journalist’s tripod and grip head for some serious landscape gear – an ash wood Berlebach with a 55mm ball head.

It always pays to shoot with someone who knows what they are doing, not so that you can ask incessant questions or get free lessons, but so you can observe. So much of photography is about pace, about knowing how to evaluate a scene, and knowing when to cut bait. Our actual methods differ. I bracket, and he does not. He uses neutral density filters, while I polarize. He chimps, but I just check every once in a while to make sure nothing is wonky. We worked our way methodically down Buttermilk Creek, using the afternoon to carefully frame and capture the variety of falls there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Buttermilk Falls State Park, Ithaca NY
Duke hard at work.
Duke hard at work.

The next day, we used Google Maps, the Photographers Ephemeris, and the Cornell website to chart an excursion to the lower Cascadilla Gorge, which runs spectacularly through the campus, dropping 400 feet in less than a mile. We positioned our cars, and when we walked to the gate to enter the gorge, we found out that access was prohibited because of falling debris hazards from a construction project. The Cornell website had not a word about this. We went back to the bottom and shot the falls at the bottom of the cascade, but they were not spectacular.

Cascadilla Gorge, Cornell University
Cascadilla Gorge, Cornell University

We took off for Watkins Glen without eating lunch, and time lost in Ithaca was time well used there. The canyons of the west are enormous and brightly colored, but eastern glens have their own charms. One still gets to marvel at what a stream can cut out of its way over time. The relative scale is the same, but the balance between intimacy and grandeur in the gorge at Watkins Glen transcends mere size. Flora and fauna are an afterthought in the great canyons of the west, but they coexist in the more modest confines of this ravine. The color palette is cooler, and the detail crisper.

Watkins Glen
Watkins Glen Ravine
Falls at Watkins Glen
Falls at Watkins Glen

Sadly, because of the paucity of hotel rooms in the area during leaf peeping season, I had to bolt before sunset in order to make it back to Philly by bedtime.

It wasn’t Yellowstone, but with great company, good scenery, and new challenges in photography, this Finger Lakes falls outing suited me just fine.

masterclass

© 2012 Rocky Nook

240 pages

ISBN: 978-1-937538-07-1

Price: $59.95 Hardover (laminated paper over boards)

Those of us who did not attend photography school or spend our twenties assisting in studios often have gaps in our shooting repertoire. Photography is problem-solving, and we have more than adequate analytical skills, but education still counts. I have seen too many cocky photographers get tied in knots when they take on a shoot that requires special skills. Also, many part time photographers lack the organizational and legal smarts to make their operations efficient and profitable.

Most educators know that learning a trade requires three elements: being told what to do, watching someone do it, and doing it yourself. To that end, photographers have sought out webinars and DVDs, where one can watch someone plan, shoot, and process, live seminars and classes, which allow one to perform the tasks and ask questions, and books, which lay out all the details and act as a reference.

Someone recently said that revenue from photography education now exceeds that from the sale of images. Whether or not that is true, there is certainly a lot of instruction going on, and anywhere there is money, there are problems. Many webinars and seminars are thinly disguised advertisements for products at their worst, and even when the class is useful, it is often limited by the sponsorships and allegiances of the instructor. Others have the faults of the worst sort of inspirational presentations – lots of teary stories and self-help nonsense. There are fantastic offerings available from creativelive and others, but they are habit-forming, time-consuming, tough to retain, and still are no substitute for hands on training.

Dennis Savini’s Masterclass is a nice counterpoint to the blizzard of instruction that targets rising professional photographers. A typical Rocky Nook production, it combines an attractive layout with well thought out, organized text. Gorgeously printed on substantial paper, it is bound to lay flat, as instructional books should.  Copiously illustrated with wonderful examples of studio work, it shows the best work possible in a variety of situations.

While this is a great book for studio photographers who want to broaden their skills, it is not for neophytes. The first quarter of the book, an introduction to general issues in studio photography, is much more suggestive than directive. Rather than give copious detail about issues like the physical plant, gear, legal issues, and marketing, it simply outlines the issues and choices you have to make. If you want detailed information on modifiers, cameras, lights, decoration, advertising, social media, etc., look elsewhere.

The meat of the book consists of a comprehensive catalog of product and corporate shots. Each shot is accompanied by technical details, and throughout the presentation, short articles with general lighting principles and shooting tips supplement the pieces covering the individual set ups. Post production and shooting steps are illustrated on those shots that rely heavily on special effects.

One weakness of the book is the short shrift given to portrait shooting, which seems like an afterthought at the end of the book.

The photos in the book were shot largely with medium and large format cameras, and the photographs produced, will in most cases be out the reach of most photographers. However, I learned how to be a better landscape photographer from studying Ansel Adams, even though I will never haul a view camera into the wilderness. The techniques and principles are clearly laid out in this volume and many of the set ups within the capabilities of most shooters. If one seriously wants to expand studio skills, the book could be useful.

That being said, it’s definitely a masterclass – amateurs or new studio photographers will likely find this volume intimidating, if inspiring, but in the end not as useful as other books aimed squarely at them by authors like Kelby and Evening. The introductory material lacks cohesion. For this group, the book does not justify the price.

For established or master photographers, however, it serves as an excellent reference book on handling tricky or specialized shooting situations. The setups show great variety, and the photography great craft and finesse, well explained and illustrated. This book would have been best presented with an expanded number of case studies and a less dismissive approach to portraiture.

Congratulations to Adobe for their latest announcement offering Photoshop CC and Lightroom as a package to Photoshop license holders for $9.99/month with no time limit.

I was one of many photographers who found that the new pricing strategy primarily addressed the problem that Adobe had with their non-customers but paid little attention to making sure their loyal, paying customers received fair treatment.

As someone for whom Photoshop forms an essential part of workflow, $20/month was not a bad deal on its face, but Adobe did not adequately compensate existing licensees for their investment. Those of us with CS licenses have invested between $600 and $2000 on the initial program and upgrades through the years. While it could be argued that we got value for the years of use, the fact remains that a $10/month discount for a year essentially meant that we were only paying $120 less for CC that someone who started using Photoshop legally yesterday.

We were used to paying something in the neighborhood of $10/month to stay upgraded, so the new deal was essentially a doubling of our outlay.

Well, Adobe has not only remedied the problem, but done us one better by throwing in Lightroom.

Thanks, Adobe, for realizing that good will and full acceptance of CC from your most loyal base of customers is better business than cynically trying to screw the maximum amount out of customers who must have the latest software.

Now, if the cable companies and the banks would just come to the same conclusion…

Although those with a tendency to become addicted to social media should steer clear of them, forums give you a great opportunity to ask questions, research problems, and exchange with other photographers.

In most corners of life, small is beautiful, but when it comes to discussion groups, size has its advantages. As an Olympus shooter, I appreciate the cozy groups where I can find what I need without having to ignore Canikon-only products and solutions, but when it comes to general photographic advice, I head to the large sites. Some evolved from gear review websites, such as Steve’s Digicam Reviews or DP Review, some from an individual’s personal interests, such as Fred Miranda or Luminous Landscape, and still others were purpose-built as general forums, like Photo.net, Photo Camel and the Photography Forum.

Every venue has its strengths and weaknesses, and I use them all, but Photo.net has the best “signal to noise” ratio of all of them IMHO. A nominal membership fee (amply covered by freebies and discounts) keeps “trolls” at bay and the discourse on topic. The membership is large and distinguished – the level of images shown is the best I’ve seen, comparable to the best sharing sites, like 500px.

I asked for tips this weekend about going to Yellowstone in October, and within hours I had several excellent replies, offering experience, advice, and links to helpful resources, such as wyofoto.com and Bearman‘s, from a host of photographers, who also knew to show me their portfolios. Here’s a peek at Christopher Sperry’s work:

Lower Yellowstone Falls

And David Henderson’s:

I have booked the transportation for the trip:

Amtrak’s Cardinal. As you can see, this train takes a roundabout route to Chicago, but I chose it because it would allow me to check baggage along the entire route. It takes about the same amount of time as the alternate route through Pittsburgh by saving one layover.

Screen Shot 2013-07-27 at 11.29.43 AM

At first glance, you might say, “Wow, what fantastic scenery!” but the excitement is tempered by the fact that the majority of the time spent in West Virginia Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio will be in darkness in October. Shooting from a moving train requires a pretty fast shutter speed, so opps from the windows unfortunately will be fewer than I would like.

Some of this I will see, and much of it I will not be able to photograph:

BandO-10 cardinal-oldhouse cardinal-art-gesfrv2e-1amtrak-cardinal-3-jpg amtrak-02 Amtrak trestle

Photos from Amtrak and Railfan & Railroad magazine.

The good news is that I have a four hour layover in Chicago, which, if the train stays on schedule, gives me time to get a decent meal and do some shooting.The last time I visited the windy city, I had wall to wall meetings and social engagements, so I would like to get some shots this time.

The second leg of the trip will be on the Empire Builder, so called because much of its route parallels the Louis and Clark Expedition. Here, the shooting will be much better, as we will have daylight for North Dakota and almost all of Montana. The photographers below demonstrate the opportunities. (Check out Jack DeWitt’s and Tony Bynum‘s portfolios – they are stunning!)

Screen Shot 2013-07-27 at 1.54.41 PM

Empire Builder from NBC by Alex Mayes
Empire Builder from NBC Destination Travel by Alex Mayes
amtrakNorthernBorder
Northern Border Route from International Society of Train Travelers
Crossing Two Medicine Bridge by Tony Bynum
Crossing Two Medicine Bridge by Tony Bynum
Whitefish Staion by Jack DeWitt
Whitefish Staion by Jack DeWitt

I booked the famous Lodge at Whitefish Lake,with stunning views and a fireplace in every room for the Friday night. (It is remarkably reasonable in the shoulder season, in case you thought I had fallen off the cheapskate wagon.)  We plan to explore Glacier, Flathead Lake, and The National Bison Range on our way to Yellowstone. Since we have a long drive to Mammoth Hot Springs, we won’t be tempted by the Octoberfest to linger in town.

Sunset at Whitefish Lodge from Trip Advisor
Sunset at Whitefish Lodge from Trip Advisor
Marina at Dusk from Lodge website
Marina at Dusk from Lodge website

Now I just have to figure out how to spend five days in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park…….

Image

Why Photographs Work:

52 Great Images: Who Made Them, What Makes Them Special and Why

by George Barr

© 2010 Rocky Nook

$39.95 French flapped softcover

I came upon a remarkable book that every photographer, especially those who want to nurture their artistic side as a complement to their paying work.

Photographers look for inspiration, and often they turn to the pantheon of great photographers to find it. They look to Lange, Cartier-Bresson, Steichen, Adams and others and examine the rich histories of those photographers and their bodies of work.

George Barr takes a different and refreshing approach. He chooses not just 52 photographers, but 52 photographs (cards in a deck? weeks in a year?), each from a different shooter. His makes his central aim showing why photographs work, not how photographers work, though photographic process certainly plays a role. Largely, the artists are not household names, but all have solid reputations and fine work.

The structure of the book is deceptively simple. Each chapter begins with a gorgeously reproduced photograph, and its text begins with Barr’s critique of the photograph. The photographers then offer their thoughts on the photograph, encompassing their experience identifying the scene, imagining the image, and making the photograph. A brief biography and portrait of the shooter caps each section.

Photography at its core is learning to battle constraints and solve problems. To create a book like this, one must use living photographers, and to sustain interest and narrative, assemble a wide variety of images.

This he accomplishes admirably, bringing together portraits, landscapes, still life, abstracts, architecture, closeups, documentary, and panoramic images taken with everything from large format cameras to mobile phones, on film and from digital sensors, processed as traditional color and black & white, as infrared, and via alternative processes, with and without obvious manipulation.

By juxtaposing the observer’s comments and the photographer’s thoughts, he reinforces the theme of the book, that photographs work for a number of reasons, but all of them come down to how skilfully an image maker conveys his or her experience and vision to the viewer.

“If the best thing you can say about a photograph is that it is superbly composed, then the image has failed.”

“If a photograph tells you all and leaves nothing to the imagination, it may be a good photograph, but there isn’t a lot of reason to revisit it.”

The first statement appears in the opening chapter and becomes the initial strand in a thread that continues throughout the work. The second forms one of the last stitches in the book’s fabric. Barr insists that remarkable photographs set themselves apart because they combine technical brilliance with a rich understanding of the medium and a deep connection with the subject. He not only dismisses as unremarkable those images that are too studiously composed, but also ones that rely solely on exoticism (colorful travel pictures from remote countries, for instance) or sentimentality, or which simply derive from the work of more inspired photographers.

He draws a lesson from each image by analyzing the artistic and technical elements that allow it to shine. He teaches about the effective use of light, natural, artificial, and modified, the photographer’s skill in handling the tools of the trade, the shooter’s eye, and the importance of a continual path of learning and growth.  When combined with the photographer’s own story of the image and the brief biographies with technical notes, the reader leaves with a complete understanding of all the circumstances that make a great image.

This book will appeal to enthusiast photographers who want to go beyond the basic camera club critiques – find leading lines, use the rule of thirds, control depth of field, expose carefully, etc. – and see how superb technique can combine with inspiration to create memorable images.

For the accomplished or professional photographer, Barr offers a survey of contemporary photography that reveals the variety and quality of work that can be done in almost any genre.

Like any tome with this many entries, some chapters will appeal more than others. The formula does not work for all images, and every reader will have a different taste in images. At the end of the day, however, I feel that fewer, longer chapters would have become pedantic. even academic. By keeping the critiques short, Barr avoids the leaden over-analysis that ruins most photography criticism This is book about photos, not theory, and it largely succeeds. If one chapter falls flat, move to the next, there are plenty.

Definitely worth its reasonable price tag, it will not simply be retired from the coffee table to the bookshelf, but lent, shared, and re-sampled for years.

Amherst 2013

NECCC-Title-Slide-2013_small

Every year, I make the five hour trek to Amherst, MA for the NECCC (New England Council of Camera Clubs) convention, a weekend affair where over 1000 photographers, ranging from beginners to enthusiasts to seasoned pros, gather for seminars and fellowship. And of course to look at the excellent selection of money-sucking gear and tours on the excellent trade floor put together by Hunt’s and the suppliers. The campus is the least photogenic on Earth, but the photography on display makes you forget where you are.

Not scenic UMass campus.

Not scenic UMass campus. Photo by D. Gould.

As I will be shooting wildlife for the first time this October, I paid special attention to travel and outdoor offerings. The excellent Roman Kurywczak gave the best one hour introduction on shooting wildlife imaginable, and David Wells (finally, an Olympus shooter) mixed inspirational photos with practical advice. Dave uses mirrorless cameras, which sets him apart from the crowd, and Olympus was there in force, offering rentals for the first time, right alongside Canikon.

The weekend also featured the excellent Dave Cross from NAPP/Kelby, conference favorite Janice Wendt, who is now working for Perfectly Clear, Jim DiVatale, who always has something new to teach, conference regulars Joe LeFevre and Mark Bowie with their challenging night and time lapse work, and Truman Holtzclaw, who might be the funniest photographer on the planet. Keynote speaker Nevada Weir told interesting tales of risky photography and showed fascinating documentary photos, though her presentation oddly failed to hold the audience for an hour and a half. I don’t blame her – because of remodeling, the keynote had to be delivered twice (Friday and Saturday) in an uncomfortable hall, after dinner, and following a half hour of awards and raffles. Once the Fine Arts Center renovation is finished, we should be moving back to a suitable venue for this sort of presentation.

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Phenomenal instructors. Photo from Mike Moats.

On the technical side, Brenda Hipsher from X-Rite (color management) and Cemal Ekin (printing) clarified issues and techniques that puzzle a lot of photographers who are taking the leap and managing their own workflow from capture to output.

There were a few clunkers, as expected, though I did not expect the normally superb Shiv Verma to look so completely lost demonstrating selections.

As always, one of the highlights was Antoinette Gombeda’s Camera Club session, where I got to meet other club officers and exchange ideas. This year the topic was finding programs and speakers, and I learned a lot about that often frustrating endeavor.

As for trends, which are always apparent at these gatherings:

1. The RAW vs JPG war is over. With today’s fast cards and cheap storage, there is no reason not to shoot RAW exclusively.

2. More photographers are managing their own workflow. “Calibrate and profile your monitor” has become as pronounced a mantra as “Shoot RAW.” It has even extended to profiling individual cameras. Color Checkers and iOne/Munki machines were flying out the door.

EODIS3_gl_f5 MSCCPP_DNG_M2

3. Despite the refinement of global adjustment software like Lightroom, and slider and preset driven plugins from OnOne, Nik, Topaz, and Perfectly Clear, etc., shooters are taking more control over adjustments and learning to make selections and use layers. The tablet has become the latest must have peripheral, touted by virtually every speaker. As Jane Conner-Ziser memorably said at an event I once attended, “Using a mouse to do retouching is like using a potato to wash your car.”

PTH650_1 as Smart Object-1800px-russet_potato_cultivar_with_sprouts1 as Smart Object-1

Time to start making plans for next year’s trip to this marvelously run, informative, inspiring conference. I definitely want to avoid those lousy dorm beds by finding a hotel, so I am booking now.

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