Late One Night, I Was Working in the L*a*b

COVID-19 means a somewhat monastic life. Shop once a week -- brandy, gin, tonic: the essentials, quick nip down to the dog park so the doggos can go for a trundle, wait for the snow to melt so I can get into the shop and start on the ever lengthening list of make and mend projects and recently, rediscover some old post-processing techniques.

Everybody has them: that image that is as near perfectly exposed as you can get, the composition is good and when you made the image what you saw spoke to you at some level.


When you pull it into your RAW processor of choice no matter what you do it lies there like a gopher on a prairie highway: flat and dead. You feel like you're staring into a washed out desert at high noon and no amount of finangling can fix this turd of an image. In your gut, however, you know that this image has merit and shouldn't be given up on.

I was out visiting my mother and sister in the Comox Valley a while back and is usual it was raining. In all the years she's lived there -- about 20 plus -- I can count the times that I've actually had a sunny day. It's been rain, snow, wind, rain, cloud, and all the possible combinations: sometimes within a few hours. This visit was no exception. I was lucky this time: the rain wasn't blowing sideways.

We had headed down to Coombs to hit the Dutch Store for some essentials. You readers who have more than a few ounces cloggy blood in you'll know what that means. We'd taken the old Island Highway down and on the way back we decided to stop at Qualicum Beach to have a cup of coffee. Sitting on the promenade I made the following image. The sky was clearing and the Coast Range across the Strait was getting seriously rained on. The shimmering water, the Rembrandt sky. Yeah, so I got this instead:

Straight Outta RAWton
Flatter than a dead gopher on a road, amirite? It looked okay when I chimped the black and white image. I shoot both raw and a BW jpeg. The composition works. The rain hammering down on the Coast Mountains, the shimmering water illuminated by the patch of sky and the cumulus cloud.

The composition works, yet the tonalities I saw just weren't there. I knew the image I saw through the view finder was in there. I just had to liberate it from its current digital capitivity.

Looking at the histogram, the exposure is about right. Maybe overexposed by a 1/2 to 2/3 stop but really nothing too egregious. In what follows I have to note that I use a colour balanced workflow: calibrated monitor, monitor brightness dialed back to match a glossy print und zo weiter.

Base Histogram
Okay, so let's tweak the exposure -1/2 stop. Hmm, nope. That made the greys go to where they were supposed to but muddied the sky and cloud. That sky was a  very bright blue. OK, Let's muck about with the other exposure sliders. 

Slider Settings and Histogram
Post Sliders
It's close but still not exactly what I was looking for. As well, these settings amplify noise in the sky if you zoom in -- not really a good thing

Sooooo, let's mess with the Tone Curve. I just grabbed the default Strong Contrast curve.

Default Strong Contrast Curve

Post Strong Contrast Curve
Still a load of Nope. I'm clutching at straws at this point so let's mix the sliders and curves together
Sliders and Curves
Now we're starting to cook with gas. The sky is starting to peep through as I had envisaged it, the heavy rain on the mountains is still there but now with the intensity I had desired, and the clouds showing the textures and shades that I want to show. The bottom of the image still sucks though.

Still it wasn't quite right. I really get worried when I have to yank sliders around that much. I start getting concerned about how things will appear when printed. I process in the ProPhoto colour space but that has a wide and tolerant gamut. When you go and print you really have to watch for out of gamut: this depends on the paper that you are going to print on.

In many other attempts I was drawn to the presence sliders but this image really made me think twice about these: quick and easy micro-contrast at the expense of sometimes cartoonish images and "interesting" colour shifts -- especially in this image, and noise. I tried Topaz Adjust AI, a full ON1 Raw tool chain and ON1 Effects only. None of these really did what I wanted. I may have missed something but really, the results didn't float my boat. I don't do single image HDR. That's just not done in polite company!

I let the image sit for a while. I'll do that when I'm stymied. No sense flailing about willy-nilly and going nowhere fast.

I was staring at my library the other night and my eye happened on Dan Margulis' book "Photoshop LAB Color: The Canyon Conundrum and Other Adventures in the Most Powerful Colorspace" Long out of print, Margulis takes you through LAB and shows you how to use it to make some really potent corrections quickly. He admits that there are other ways of achieving the same thing but LAB is really quick and a reasonable tool to use when faced with seemingly intractable problems like bring life to desert scenes, complex colour corrections and retouching badly damaged images. I used the latter to clean up some images of my wife's ancestors' photos made in the Ukraine pre-Holdomor. There are PDF copies of the book floating around the internet but do try to buy a legit copy if you can. Some of the scans are really crappy.

I'm not going to give a course in LAB or why these techniques work. I'm just going to work through this image to see what we get.

In the book there is an example of him using LAB space to bring a flat seascape (sound familiar?) to life. Without getting into the deep hairy details about LAB, this it what the channels in LAB mean:

Example of LAB curves
L goes from dark to light, from 0 to 100; L is never negative (A & B can be). An L value of 0 means pure black while and 100 means pure white. An L value of 50 is equivalent to a 50% grey. L controls exposure and contrast only. In RGB, mucking with the contrast can (and usually does) muck up the colours. The a & b channels govern the relationship between the opposing colours that are part of the theory behind LAB. The values for these channels range from -127 to +127. A value of +128 means a is all magenta or b is all yellow and a value of -127 means a is all green or b is all blue. Mixing all this up you can get any colour that exists and some physically unrealizable colours as well: liquidine velvet chermerculoid yellow springs to mind.

PLEASE NOTE! The above is horribly simplified. Read Margulis' book if you want to get down and dirty with LAB, its theory and practice.

Also note that in the curves shown above and below I'm following Margulis' practice of showing them from 0 to 100% with lightness to the left as opposed to the PS default of lightness to the right. This setting is equivalent to "ink deposited" that is used when working in the CMYK space. You don't have to do this. Do what ever you want as the Chesire Cat said.

So, Hi! Ho! Hi! Ho! into Photoshop we go.

After changing into LAB mode we add a Curves adjustment layer. After a some experimentation I came up with these adjustments: 

Final LAB Adjustments
You'll notice that there are no adjustments to the a channel. The a width of the a channel histogram is so narrow that no matter what you do (unless something very, very rude to the curve) nothing happens. I also made sure that after the adjustments everything was still in gamut for the printing service that I use.
Post LAB Image
This is what I was going for. Not to over cooked, nicely in control. This was done much quicker that all the phaffing about in LR to get a less desireable result (to my mind, at least).

So, back into LR to do just some minor tweaks. I wanted to enhance the shimmer of the reflection of the cumulus cloud so I applied a radial filter comme ca: 
Radial Filter
Then a bit of sharpening, masking out most of the blocks of relatively continuous tone et voila, the final image:

Final Colour Image
I can now pull this into NIK Silver eFex and get the black and white image I was after. No, I'm not sharing my workflow there; that's my "secret sauce":

Final Black & White Image
A successful session in the LAB I would say.

And now, some Bobby Pickett:


Opa Gaat Op Reis

Joe's Juice

In Which a Newly Minted Opa Flies to Denmark to Make that ONE Image (and maybe a few others too)

"An Opa? You mean as in grandfather?"" asked gin and tonic across the table.
"Ayup, as of November 23 of last year." 

"Gorn," said Red Ale. "You? Lord help that kid."

Lager Lou nodded. "Next thing you know you'll be having him make horrid puns in Danish, as well as Dutch and English."

"Have you seen the lad then?"
"Ayup, February, just before the virus hit the fan."
"Took him to a blues bar then?"

And so on...

That dear reader, is the level of intellectual repartee at the local; a right lot of charlies they are. But it is true, I am now a grandfather. And yes, I was lucky enough to see the lad before the world came to halt comma grinding. As the subtitle says, I only wanted to make that ONE image, that one image that captured what I thought having a child was all about. I made one of my wife and daughter when my daughter was but a week or so old and I wanted to see if, some 20 years later, I could turn the trick again.

Getting to Denmark from the wilds of the Alberta Foothills is a bit of a trek. You have to (if you're flying WestJet) transit through Mordor, or London Gatwick as it is known to the local jobsworths. Little did I know that we would be staying at the Barad-dûr Inn and Suites

Courtyard, Premier Inn, London Gatwick (LGW)
All joking aside, the Premier Inn is a pleasant hotel for a passenger in transit – even with Sauron as the architect. Thankfully the only Orcs I could detect were over in airport security.

Copenhagen in February is a different kettle of hygge than Copenhagen in May or June (when I was there last). Remembering that it is farther north than Grande Prairie, Alberta (where I used to work when dinosaurs roamed the Earth) the sun in February rises late, sets early and doesn't go that far above the horizon (18 deg or so at noon) which makes for some interesting lighting challenges but also some fantastic opportunities.

Seven to 8 hours of daylight and a low sun is just the start. With an average of 11.4 days of rain and 2.4 hours of sunlight in February there's good reason for Kierkegaard being referred to as "that gloomy Dane".

So, when it's not raining you have to usually work in an overcast. But when the sun does appear, even through scattered clouds, the quality of the light is just, just... wow. I can't describe it. The colours are saturated, the detail is sharp, even to my aging Mark I eyeball. In short, a delight (hah!) to work with!

Harry's Place

Miss Ruth is not at home today
With light like that, that ONE image would have to wait for just a bit. 

It had rained earlier in the morning and I was out for wander and ended up at Kødbyen or the Meat Packing District. I like to go there every trip because this is where you can find The fotographisk centre (http://fotografiskcenter.dk/). A great gallery with the greatest people working there: they really care about photography. This image is an example of what I was talking about when I said that the low sun angle made for some interesting lighting challenges. 

Here, you're not only shooting into the sun, but the sun in this case is at about 18 degrees above the horizon, just out of frame to the right. I had to do a lot of dodging and burning to get the clouds in the sky to balance with the brooding gateway. It wasn't until I started processing that I noticed that the lines leading up to the gate reminded me of railway lines leading up to another gate that is known for something much, much darker. When that hit me I reprocessed for a much more grainy and turbulent image. 


Brown Market Slaughterhouse
One system was passing and another was to come (say hello Storm Dennis) but in spite of that we went up to Gilleleje to have lunch at one of my favourite restaurants (Restaurant Gilleleje Havn & Krostue) and to walk along the ocean. The wind was up and the clouds where racing along in eager anticipation of dumping another metric butt-ton of rain on an unsuspecting Copenhagen.

Conveyor, Gillelejehavn
Figure and Dunes
OK, OK; I've been blithering long enough; on to the money shot. Unfortunately this term has been corrupted by the Internet (see Rule #34) (if you don't know, look it up). As far as I'm concerned it's that image the client pays you for or is iconic in it's ability to communicate. It could be Bobby Orr diving across the crease after scoring the winning goal for the Stanley Cup, the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square, or Ghandi sitting by the spinning wheel; it's that ONE shot.

I was lucky that my son was at work and that my wife had slept in so I was able to spend some time with my daughter-in-law on my own. After chit-chatting about this and that I casually pulled out my trusty E-P2 and with the 45mm (that makes for a nice 90mm equivalent portrait lens). I noodled around a bit while Stine was putting on the baby sling so she'd get comfortable with me and the camera. Click, nope. Click, nope. Click, nope. I was starting worry that I might "Hungry Joe" this shoot. How about we move here. Click, nope. And then: click, click, click – magic. Three shots, three images that captured the bond between mother and child.

Mother and Son
So, I did get that ONE shot. And made, I think, some other nice images as well. The whole gallery is here


Ethel The Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying

I'm not a hoarder! I'm a curator of a collection of books about photography!

The good lady wife was in London the other month and went to the Tate Britain and saw the McCullen exhibition. I’ve been trying to curb my bibliomania and I’ve avoided bringing more books (well, more books about photography at least) into the house for a while now.

We were visiting via iMessage and she was sending me pictures of – dramatic pause – photography books. What a way to get triggered! In the end she brought back the following books for my reading pleasure.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

This book is referenced by almost every critic, historian or observer of photography since it was first printed. I have seen it referenced so many times that I wonder if the authors have actually read the book or are just taking something someone else wrote and passing in on in a never ending game of pass the parcel the phrasing and ideas are so similar.

Agee’s writing is what is so truly important about this book; it has a rhythm to it: at times languid and circling in eddies like a meandering southern river, other times austere like the weather beaten pine boards that make up the sharecroppers’ houses. There is poetry here: a descriptive sonority that takes you to a dusty Alabama road or to a ramshackle church. Evans’ photographs provide a muted counterpoint to the images conjured up by Agee’s eloquence.

This is a book that needs to read again and again to refine  ones understanding. Superficially you could read it and say “Yes, yes, sharecropping in the ’30s.” but underneath you get a sense of the pride and dignity of these indentured servants and the closed society of the African-Americans who, for all intents and purposes, are still tied to the landowner.

Frustrating, poetic, soaring but never descending into the trite it is a book well worth reading.

(Interesting fact: Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell’s book “Have You Seen Their Faces” predates this book and covers similar territory and was Agee’s inspiration to write this book. End obligatory MBW plug)

Photographers on Photography

This book is a follow-on to Mr. Carroll’s rather breathlessly titled “Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs”. I usually head for the exits like a stampeding wildebeest who’s just seen a lion that has decided it wants me for dinner when confronted with these sorts of titles. I’ve seen to many prescriptive tomes that end up with the reader – if they followed the instructions to the letter – taking well exposed and composed but totally blah photographs. However, I am a sucker for any books that share what other photographers say and write about this dark art.

The book is a selection of quotes taken from, as Carroll calls them, “visionary photographers” offset with examples of their work and a short essay by Carroll. In some places there is an interview with the photographer where the themes are expanded upon. It’s always a matter of opinion who the “visionaries” are and in the case of a survey book such as this one it’s a case of the usual suspects: Lange, Adams, Winogrand etc. Joy of joys though, a broad selection of others that may not be so commonplace are included as well: Moryama, Shiga, Soth and many others. It’s this diversity of insight and perspective that makes this book a delight.

Let’s be clear about this right now. This book is not a prescriptive book on technique in any way, shape or form. Don’t even bother if you’re looking for a book that shares with you the greats’ “secret sauce”. What it is, however, is a book that shares the greats’ philosophical “secret sauce”. 

This book forces you to think about what you personally are trying to accomplish as an artist as you read the artists’ words, look at the images and study Carroll’s essays.

This book has one star reviews on Amazon (“The Idiocy of the Commons”) from people looking for “How-To-Do-It” and not wanting to actually put in the hard work to develop their vision and craft.

Highly recommended!

Don McCullin

The book that started this latest round of purchasing of books: the catalog for the McCullin Retrospective exhibition at the Tate Britain.

It’s a fetish of mine, buying catalogs of photography exhibitions whenever I can. The commentary is (usually) insightful and the production quality is always extremely high. Sumptuously and I do mean sumptuously printed, this one raises the standard to a new level. It is almost as good as seeing the actual photograph hanging on the wall.

McCullin says he’s not an artist and resents the label “war photographer.” He indicates that he doesn’t want the suffering of the people and situations he photographed conflated with art nor for them to be supplanted by labels. He goes on to say that he was there to bear witness; be it war, famine, insurrection or social issues.

McCullin, protestations to the contrary, displays an artist’s sensitivity and depth in being able to capture the raw, painful reality of the situation. He is more than technician with quick reflexes and a phenomenal amount of raw courage; he has that innate ability to combine that most elusive of events: composition, emotion and raw drama. You can see it in the first image he ever sold, “The Lords of the Manor”. His visual language is that of an artist first, recorder of events second.

There is a darkness that begins to creep in to his prints as he is drawn deeper and deeper into the pain of mankind as he covers more and more violence. Gone are the well dressed young squires showing off for the camera to be replaced by gaunt images of famine victims and shell shocked soldiers.

It has been said by some that this darkness is reflective of the PTSD and the resulting nightmares he suffers from. There may be something in this as I, too, tend to print darker than most, preferring contrasty prints with deep shadows. Although I do not suffer from PTSD as such, I do suffer from depression and anxiety and I do find, dare I say, a comforting familiarity in his visual language – not that I would for an instant compare my talent to McCullin’s.

Retired, McCullin has turned to photographing landscapes to find some sort of solace. Equally haunting, the images of his beloved Somerset show that McCullin is truly an artist and his sensitivities provide an explanation of why he was so impacted by the horrors he witnessed.

If you can see “McCullin”, do so. If you can’t get the catalog. It may be available from the Tate online store.

Lives of – The Great Photographers

Many people know or know of images like HCB’s “Behind the Gare St. Lazaire”, Capa’s “The Falling Soldier” or Fenton’s images of the Crimean War. Just as interesting and often forgotten or unknown (often by casual observers or people embarking on pursuing photography as a career or hobby) are the equally fascinating stories of the photographers themselves. Hacking is an astute observer and in this book has produced a collection of sketches of photographers that  have provided images that, without society being aware of it, are now part of our visual language have been subsumed into our culture.

I have one of her other books “Photography – The Whole Story”. It is written in the same style as this one: clear, and crisp and delightful to read. The writing in both books  steer far from the load of arty bollocks and dry critical theory that so often crops up.

Unlike so many surveys, bio(and auto)biographies and memoirs that are either hagiographies, short on detail, way to long on detail and those that provide no new insights Hacking is able to produces sketches of the photographer that drills down to what she thinks they are really all about. As she says in the introduction: “A person is so much more that dates and places...”

Her observations are not always in keeping with the received wisdom in arty circles. In the chapter on Ansell Adams, she discards the comment by the self appointed gate keeper of American photography John Szardowksi that Adams did is great work in his twenties and only repeated himself after that. She backs this up by referencing photography historian Anne Hammond offering an insightful counter. She does this elsewhere in the book as well, but unlike, say, Sontag, she provides well referenced counter-arguments.

Her choice of photographers to include is as interesting as the selection found in “Photographers on Photography”. Hacking indicates in her forward that all are pioneers in one way or another and their impact can not be understated. There is some overlap, some usual suspects that PonP didn’t include as well as some that are not so well known and some that only hardcore students of photography would know. I’m looking forward to going down the internet rabbit hole to study and learn from their work.

4 new books, 4 new perspectives. Oh, and the title of this post? Well. here's the Bookstore Sketch


In which John explores a library and starts to get his groove back

I’ve always had a fascination with libraries (and bookstores as the good lady wife will attest to). When I had the chance, through the Coffee and Cameras program put on by The Camera Store, to explore the New Calgary Public Library without any of the general public around I leapt at it.

Along with about 25 other folks I was able to spend 3 hours wandering the library unrestricted. Some brought tripods and flashes. I shot hand held for three glorious hours and, even better, I got into the zone a few times.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’ve been approaching how I shoot. If you’ve been following the “whole rotten saga” of my existential angst about making images you’ll see what I mean. Oddly enough, as if to prove the old saying “the teacher will come when the student is ready”, I got an an e-mail from Dave Duchemin announcing the 10th anniversary edition of “Within The Frame.” I have the original version but I like to support Dave so I bought it along with his other book “The Soul of The Camera.” I’d also been reading “The Practice of Contemplative Photography” and these two books gave me the figurative “slap upside the haid” that I needed.

At the New CPL I approached the library with no preconceived notions of what I was what images I was going to make. I even gave myself permission to make no images.

Wait, what? Make no images? Are you on glue? What’s the point of getting up early on a Sunday morning then? What’s the point of paying for 3 hours of access to the most innovative building in Calgary? Simple: letting go of the pressure to create, to produce. You can then silence that always chattering, problem solving part of the brain and open your senses to the potential images that may be created.

By silencing the old chatterbox I was able to be patient and wait until I could truly see the building. By silencing the old chatterbox I could be mindful and reflect on the essence of the building and use that as a starting point and literally dance with the building: listening to what it has to tell you. When you reach this sort of melding with a subject you begin to transcribe its essence (and yours) into a collaborative work that combines the essence of the subject and your state of consciousness into something, one hopes, creative and meaningful.

I did something else as well, something I used to do all the time but some how got away from doing: limbering up. Musicians do it, athletes do it, maybe even educated fleas do it. I parked the truck a few blocks east of the library and pulled out the camera. Getting the first shot out of the way really helps. You start to sketch, you tickle the ivory, do the sound check and after a bit it starts to come. First the National Music Centre

National Music Centre
Then the refurbished King Eddy (a gentrified shadow of its former self, I like the Blues Can better).

The King Eddy
And then the Enmax District Energy Centre.

Enmax District Energy Centre
By now, even though my fingers were freezing, my heel blister shrieking to “Shtaaaap!” everything was popping.

Waiting for Luke’s to open I wandered around some more


And then inside. I didn’t set out to photograph any specific aspect of the building, I just responded to what caught my eye; often out of the corner of my eye. When, several days later I looked at what I had, I noticed an overall theme had evolved: abstraction and pattern.

Quiet Reading Room Ceiling Detail
Quiet Reading Room, Ceiling Detail

Atrium Ceiling Detail
Childs Toy, Childrens’ Play Area
The whole gallery is here:

Calgary Communities: New Calgary Public Library

I'm spending a lot of time experimenting with ON1 2019 Effects, Silver Efex and DxO Filmpack so that's why there are duplicates.

My oh my! It’s so nice to feel that groove coming back. Oh what a feeling, Oh what a rush.

Special Shout Out

Many thanks to the staff of The Camera Store for organizing these expeditions. It's a lot of work pulling these events together and then herding the cats. Peter needs to give you raises. Thank you!


Night Patrol

Blessed Snow Pile
There was no clapping of a perky tour director’s hands or cheery exhortations for us to line up. Just a nod between everybody and a quiet “Well, let's get at it.” Beers finished, tabs settled and like a platoon going on patrol we prepare our cameras, hoisting bags of equipment onto our shoulders and form up outside.

We spread out into the night, photonic warriors hunting for images. Point, flank and drag: we patrol the streets – cameras nosing back and forth, looking, sniffing. An image? Perhaps. Work it. Shutters snicking like automatic fire and then silence. Further into the night, through the deserted streets we wander. Suddenly a flash illuminates the dark. More images found and captured.

Then, as quickly as we formed up, we are at the next encampment. Bags are unslung, field jackets are removed and beer is ordered. The conversation drifts to the images captured, what gear crapped out, what worked, what didn’t. Shots not taken as important as those that were. We share our photonic prisoners held captive on our memory cards.

Another The Camera Store “Beer & Cameras” is over until the next time. Luckily, it was relatively warm that night considering the next day the overnight temperatures went to -20 or so and stayed there until mid-March.  I was glad of the chance to make some images before having to hibernate, yet again.

With the exception of “Street Corner” all of these are all straight OOC with only minor lens adjustments and crops to my two preferred formats, 8x10 and 1x1. “Street Corner” was processed in NIK dFine and NIK Silver Efex.

When I made the “Blessed Snow Pile” and “Calgary Tower, Circle K” images I wasn't expecting to see any lens flare at all; both were made with my Leica so I didn't see anything in the viewfinder. I'm glad it's there as the flare has added some interest to what are perhaps bland images.
Street Corner
Calgary Tower, Circle K

Making Sandwiches BW
Making Sandwiches
A splendid evening. And, in keeping with the night, two videos about the night

(always did like Steely Dan)


Coffee & Cameras & Beers! Oh My!

Back in the day when I was a code slinger on DEC Vaxen and later on PCs with Borland product I always enjoyed the local user groups (LUGs). We’d invade a bar, order copious amounts of beer and if there were free snacks we’d devour those like a plague of locusts. We’d then compalin about DEC, complain about Borland (or its later incarnations, usually as Borprise). We’d swap hard won knowledge into the acrana of VMS and Delphi’s Object Pascal. Backup tapes (for VAXen) and floppies filled with code would change hands spreading “the knowledge”. The lucky ones with an ARPAnet connection would share print-outs of the latest episode of the “Bastard Operator From Hell”.

When I saw The Camera Store was starting a thing called “Beer and Cameras” I said to myself: “Ah-ha! These are two of my favourite things! This could be just like the LUGs of old!” The way it works is you meet at a venue (brewery or coffee house) have a beer or coffee and then have a photo walk to the next venue. What could possibly go wrong?

Here’s the thing: I don’t do camera clubs. I don’t know why. I’ve been to the odd meeting or two but they never did anything for me and I really don’t like competitive aspects. I wrestle with their philosophy and aesthetics of photography. Submission requirements that require sharpness and focus and minimal cropping and post processing just don’t do it for me. When I make an image in the field I have already visualized how that image will look in print. The raw image is a base canvas for me: a starting off point if you will. Once in the digital darkroom I take that canvas and realize my vision.

I didn’t go for a long time due to scheduling issues (work, family, yada yada yada) but last month the planets aligned and I was able to go for the very first time. Hot Damn! Just like a LUG! And the best thing? Young Photographers with their energy, their ideas, their aesthetic, their fresh way of looking at the world!

So what is the big difference between ‘Cameras & Beer|Coffee” and a “camera club”? No competition, minimal structure and the enthusiasm of The Camera Store event coordinators. The venues make all the difference too. Good beer, decent eats, and for the Coffee and Cameras sessions good coffee. Can’t ask for anything more than that.

Kudos to The Camera Store and the staff; they make this work. If you’re in Calgary when they’re hosting one, make a point of signing up and showing up.


A Bad Day's Shooting Is...

Sunrise, Ralph Klein Park

Sometimes just that: a bad day’s shooting.

Huzzah! A chance for a road trip with my cameras. Yay! The light as I left Calgary heading east looked promising. It wasn’t too cold. It was early: the chinook arch was behind me, the sandwiches were packed, and thermos full. Yippee!

I should have stayed in bed and pulled the blankets over my head. Well, not really; something did come out of it as we shall see.

After some desultory phaffing about at the (ironically named) Ralph Klein Nature Preserve and the power plant at  Shepard on the east side of town, I got on a secondary highway and went east: east to Gleichen, east to Bassano, east to Patricia — places where my father-in-law was born, places where he grew up. I don’t know what I was expecting to find. Echoes of the past, of a now forgotten time?

Sunrise, Ralph Klein Park
Cooling Towers
Tower of Power
East past farms asleep waiting for spring to come, east past the feedlots where the steam rises from the backs of the cattle into the arctic air, east into the Siksika Nation. Past relics, both white and First Nations: Roman Catholic chapels and graveyards, tee-pee rings and memories of Crowfoot.

For whatever reason I find it hard to photograph on First Nations’ land. I feel the land grumbling under my tires. I feel unwelcome. I don’t want to be like some anthropologist of old visiting a South Sea archipelago and making images that match my preconceived notions of what is there.

Perhaps, over time, if I can find a way to build a bridge and get permission to photograph – not that it’s required but given the current state of First Nations’ relations with Canada it would probably be the decent thing to do. 

George Webber made so many potent images at Standoff in Southern Alberta: it took him years to build the trust and be able to gain that level of access.

Questions swirl in my head. Why are the Catholic Schools and the residential school still standing? Why after all those decades of abuse at the hands of the clergy are they still there? Is it like the gates at Auschwitz so the attempt a cultural assimilation is never forgotten? Or, in the case of the residential school, putting an existing building to good use as it serves as the High School? Or is it more complicated, beyond the understanding of a white man?

North on SR547, into Gleichen with the CPR right of way resembling a frontier zone between two nations: south and north, red and white, Siksika and Canada. Crossing over the CPR mainline you cross into another world: a world in decay, a world not even able to cling to its past, a world that appears to have given up. No, I’m not talking about the Siksika Nation.

My father-in-law was born in Gleichen. His father, a proud, hardworking Ukrainian immigrant worked for the CPR on a section gang. Archival photos I’ve found show a proud, prosperous and tidy town. I’ve tried to photograph in Gleichen before, each time coming up short; often not even pulling the cameras out. This time, a solitary hard man stood in the entrance of a now boarded and bricked up building. In another time it may have been a store, a bank or judging from the windows a tavern; I don’t know. As I pulled to the side of Railway Avenue, he glared. I sat and made as if to check my phone. Some young people that I’d seen walking along the road from the south side of the tracks walked up. Money and small packets changed hands. I upped stakes and left. Maybe another day.

On to the Trans-Canada Highway now and east to Bassano: “The Best Town by a Dam Site!” I have two tenuous connections to Bassano: my wife’s grandparents lived there, and I worked, for a while, for the company that owned the feed mill and feedlot: XL Foods.

Bassano had, back in the day, a lot going for it. It was a divisional point on the CPR mainline between Medicine Hat and Calgary and a junction between the Bassano and Empress Subdivisions. The Empress Subdivision was also known as the “Royal Line” because the towns along the line had royal names: Empress, Princess, Patricia, Duchess, Countess among others. Originally built in the 1910s, to haul grain and coal. After the switch to natural gas and heating fuel traffic dwindled. Passenger service ended in the 1960s and the line was finally abandoned in 1997. Chris Doering & Connie Biggart have done a lot of work wandering around this corner of Alberta

The town’s booster slogan “The Best Town By A Dam Site” comes from a massive irrigation project started by the CPR in 1910. At a cost of five million dollars (that’s more that 132 million today and I doubt that it could even be built for that sum) it involved building a 720 ft spillway across the Bow River and a 7,000 ft long 45 ft high embankment to contain the south side of the reservoir. If you include all the aqueducts and canals that were associated with this, the bill comes in at around 17 million, a cool 450 million in today’s Canadian Pesos.

Why would a famously parsimonious skin flint of company like the CPR pony up that kind of dosh in the middle of what John Palliser in the 1850s called an uninhabitable semi-arid desert? Well, they were saddled with a sizable amount of this land (30 million acres!) that would not be profitable unless something was done. What to do? Making every section pay wasn’t a problem in Manitoba and southeast Saskatchewan and but down here? Uh, no. No immigrant was going to homestead with the sagebrush, rattlesnakes and pronghorn antelope and very little water. What they needed was Moisture, with a capital “M”. It wasn’t going to come from the sky with any regularity, but by gum, the land was flat with just the right gradient and a stonking big river running through the middle. With irrigation you get settlers, with settlers you get crops and with crops you get freight to haul, grain and cattle east, tractors and consumer goods west. Voila! Profit! The Imperial model writ in sagebrush.

I digress. The story is interesting though. We’ve always been into nice big project out this way: Oil sands, pipelines, railways and irrigation projects.

All the railway infrastructure except for the main line is gone now. The hotels, except for the Hunter Hotel, now called the Imperial Hunter and for now only existing as a tavern, have gone. The elevators where knocked down and consolidated with new elevators west of town. Yet the town goes on. Light industry, the feed mill and yes, new houses being built even though the town itself is considering going under the administration of the County of Newel along with other small communities to save costs. Unlike Gleichen, it seems to survive but perhaps not thrive.

I made these images:

Imperial Hunter Hotel
Enjoy Coca-Cola
Hotel Coffee-Shop
Thursday Wing Night
Rumbling to Calgary
 Nice, I guess but nothing to write home about.

Across the TCH and follow the “Royal Line”: Duchess, Rosemary and then Patricia. Again, a connection: my wife’s grandparents farmed here. My wife remembers swimming in the irrigation ditch and in a commemorative book I made about my father-in-law I restored some pictures of life on that small holding.

This has always been a land of “Well, we’ll give our best shot and see if we can make a go of it.” At the turn-off to Patricia and onward to Dinosaur Provincial Park, a gas station and convenience store long abandoned: broken glass, a phone booth long since forgotten, an ATM machine long since torn apart, Nestle’s ice cream long since melted. An entrepreneur’s dream that didn’t pan out, hopes and memories written on the chalkboard.

Gas, Diesel, Snacks, Ice

Call me, maybe?

Nestle Drumstick and ATM
Corner Gas, Monochrome

Corner Gas, Colour

Bang a Gong
Road Trip Redux

So, what happened and what did I learn, if anything. I would hope that I didn’t spend a whole day driving around the Eastern Irrigation District making mediocre images and not have learned something from the experience.

Let’s see now:
  • I was rusty. Making images is like playing piano: you have to do it all the time and I haven’t been.
  • I tried too hard to make relevant images rather than just letting it flow. Again.
  • I need to have a little more courage to just watch and wait and make that image – even though I don’t feel welcome.
  • I need to go through that door and see what was in that Nestle’s freezer.
  • Too much driving. All told I spent about 5 hours behind the wheel (yes, Alberta is a big place); the longest stint being about an hour and a half. When you get out of the truck your nerves are jangling, your eyes are focused to a point a mile or two in the distance mesmerized by the road, still thinking in 60 mph time not footstep time. Maybe a base of operation near the target area and choose just a few places rather than “If this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium”
However, I did get some ideas for projects and re-starting some dormant ones:
  • Roadside Attractions – Re-shoot the Dinosaur Country Store and find other similar things and add that to my ongoing project of the same name.
  • Railway Hotels – Document the railway hotels all along the CPR mainline and branch lines before they vanish, and, if the bars are still open, photograph the barflies that still call them home.
  • The “Royal Line” – It’s probably been done but photograph the towns along the line (or what’s left of them).
  • Broken Dreams – All the businesses that died taking a person’s hopes and dreams with it may be learning something from the things that were left behind.
So maybe the trip wasn’t a washout after all. Guess you can’t always get what you want, but, if you try sometimes, you get what you need…