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…


If You Can't Shoot With the One You Love Honey…

Shoot With the One You're With

I don’t like carrying a camera around when I’m out and about with my better three-quarters. She flies and when she’s home, I’d rather be looking at her than through a viewfinder. Sometimes though there’s an image that’s screaming to be made.

Calgary has a new public library designed by Snøhetta. It’s a wonderful structure and replaces a decaying building across from City Hall. Light and airy, it maintains a sense of intimacy and even with high ceilings and even with an open plan quiet, even when full of people.

We had coffee at Luke’s (not the main floor cafe, but the one right inside the collection area) and spent a wonderful afternoon wandering through the building. We went from top to bottom and then the light went “boink”. I turned to my wife and said: “Sorry love, the light.” and dashed out to the entrance.

The main entrance is an arched tunnel lined with wood and is supposed to connect downtown and the East Village (a formerly rundown area in the midst of redevelopment). The arches reflect the Chinook arches that form here during the winter when the winds from the big ocean tumble down from the Rockies. In reality, the tunnel connects the backside of the Big Blue Playpen (New City Hall), the rail yards and the East Village. Downtown is about 3 blocks away. But hey, as an architect’s statement it’s no more arty bollocks than any any other architect’s statement.

The alignment of the passageway and the sun was right on. It was the golden hour (yes, 4:15 in the afternoon is the golden hour in November): the colour of the wood and the shadows of the passersby was in a word “WOW!”

OH NOES! No camera. Wait, iPhone 6s, 645 Pro app, problem solved. This app is probably the best camera app out there and it’s one of the reasons I’ve stuck with the iPhone ecosystem for as long as I have. If there was an equivalent for Android, I’d have switched a long time ago.

I made these three images. I’ve also posted the monochrome versions that I made using NIK Silver Efex. I do shoot all my cameras as RAW + Monochrome JPEG and 645 Pro is no exception. In this case I didn’t like the render so I used NIK instead. I had to work fast as figured I had about 15 minutes of light and couldn’t be arsed to fiddle fart about. This is one of those cases where “we’ll fix it in post, get the images first!”

Shadows, New Calgary Public Library

Shadows, New Calgary Public Library

Skaters, New Calgary Public Library

Skaters, New Calgary Public Library

Arches, New Calgary Public Library

Arches, New Calgary Public Library

You couldn’t have predicted it, you could have sat there day after day waiting but, with a chinook arch (ironically enough) overhead and the sun sliding behind the mountains flooding the tunnel with light the camera god looked down and smiled.

Not fantastic images, but a very good example of timing, luck and


A Bad Day's Shooting is...

Still better than a day in the office.

I have to admit that I've been not really focused on photography at all this past while. I've been grinding out training materials and I've become convinced that a person only has a finite amount of creative energy to expend and switching that energy from one context to another just doesn't work all that well.

It doesn’t help either that, for whatever reason, I’ve been fighting my camera. On one level I get it. Sometimes you, like a leading scorer, go through a slump: you’re holding the stick to tight, you’re over thinking, the puck isn’t bouncing the way it used to. You make the shot, thinking it’s top shelf and for whatever reason you hear that clank as that certain goal hits the crossbar or the post.

So, soldier on I try, sometimes with success, usually without. Yeah, yeah: there’s no sense beating yourself up but it does begin to wear.

I did have the pleasure last fall of chauffeuring my good friend Ken and his lovely wife Claudia around the Banff area. They were up from Brazil for a conference at the Banff Centre, so we did the usual: Banff, Lake Minnewanka, and the Ice Fields Parkway. No Lake Louise. It was overrun with tour buses. In fact, this was the first time in my memory (and I used to contract IT services to Banff National Park back in the day so I was out there year round) that I have seen that many tour buses to the point that, as a local, I felt unwelcome in my own backyard. As we drove past the overflow parking lot, Ken and I looked at each other and said in unison: “Let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place!

I did make some images on that trip, and while not what I would call stellar, they were images nonetheless; the first images I had consciously made since late spring. The weather was quite variable. On the drive out from Calgary, we had rain, freezing rain, driving snow, low clouds and then, as we crossed the Kananaskis River by Exshaw, clear skies. Gotta love the weather out this way.

One morning I got up early to go the Vermillion Lakes for that iconic shot of Mt. Rundle: you know the one, flat water, alpen glow and the mountain reflecting in the lake. Alas, the wind was up, the lakes where choppy and Mt. Rundle was wreathed in cloud. After some reconnoitering and trying different angles I made this image.

Vermillion Lakes and Mt. Rundle

Vermillion Lakes and Mt. Rundle
I’m not sure if I like either the colour or the monochrome version. I cleared up the foreground clutter in the monochrome version by applying a blue filter in Nik SilverFX. The rust shows, to be sure, compared to the images I had made a year earlier in the late spring.

The Icefields Parkway (connecting Lake Louise and Jasper) often has some nice opportunities for images. Early spring is my favourite time as the weather is turbulent enough that you can get wonderful cloudscapes mixing with the mountains whose crags and crevasses are still etched with snow. It’s always a hit and miss proposition though and like Forrest Gump said: “It’s like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” Like Charlie Brown (mixing metaphors), I got a rock. But, the clouds helped and with some post processing I ended up with this.

Crowfoot Glacier at Bow Lake
Crowfoot Glacier at Bow Lake
 I’m not sure about the monochrome version, but it sure looks like it was a different day up on the Crowfoot: cold and blustery. The colour version shows a hope of warmth with the hints of sunlight reflecting off the glacier and the rocks below it.

Get your geology geek on:

  • The mountain in the clouds is Mount Crowfoot and shows the Eldon Formation.
  • The finger sticking into the glacier from the right is the Cathedral Formation.

Thanks to Ben Gadd and his great book “Canadian Rockies Geology Road Tours” The more you know!

The rest of the images from this trip had no emotion, no power and were, at best, holiday snaps. But hey! I’m lucky! This beautiful landscape is only an hour or two away and for the expenditure of half a tank of gas, I can try again whenever I like, unlike Thomas Heaton who flew from England on a whim and was faced with snow, more snow, low clouds and cold feet.

I did feel some satisfaction with these images. Perhaps a year from now I’ll have another look and some others will jump out at me. Like Slim Dusty sings:


Photographing Copenhagen: Getting hygge with it

Been looking at my blog and it's been over a year since I've written anything. There's a reason for this. See, I've got this gig re-doing training materials for an old employer. Sure, it's just 20 hours a week, but at the end of a 4 hour stint in Powerpoint, LibreDraw and diety of choice knows what other software you really don't have that much creative mojo left especially when you're up to your armpits in the Canadian Air Regulations, a soul stifling document if one ever existed. I think only Lord Vetinari's clerk Drumknott's soul would take flight reading that benighted document. I digress.
I was fortunate enough to visit Copenhagen this past May. My eldest son works for an architecture firm there and has his four year residency visa. I was able to stay with him and his significant other (which makes it affordable as hotel rooms are astronomical, even at a modest inn). Their place is in Nørrebro, right by the train station. He describes it as "the hood" (with tongue firmly planted in cheek). It's a neighbourhood in transition, hosting migrants from many countries; one can see the first mosque in Denmark from their balcony.

Photographing in Copenhagen can be challenging, not because of the subject matter but because of the environment. Copenhagen is held up as a model for the modern bicycle-centric city. Thing is, they've made it more pedestrian hostile than New York (if such a thing can be imagined!). To make way for the bike lanes, they've narrowed the sidewalks so the buses and cars can still use the streets. Narrow sidewalks mean tap dancing around shop displays (more often then not of bicycles for sale), Danes, parked bicycles and you're often forced into the bike lane just to proceed down the street. And if you think that you're safe in a crosswalk with a red light showing for bikes and green light showing for us lowly foot travelers, think again. More than once I had to resort to my broadest NooYawk "Hey, I'm walkin' here!"

I digress, again. 

Cafe society is alive and well and stopping for a smørrebrød, Tuborg and akvavit. There are over 40 brands of the latter. Akvavit is to Denmark as pastis is to Provence.                           
Friends Dining
Sometimes, if you look up you can see DEATH on holiday (naked, I might add, I doubt that Albert or Susan would approve)
DEATH takes a holiday
I process all my black & white in NIK Silver Efex but since DxO bought NIK from Google, I decided to plump for DxO Photolab and FilmPack 5. This is the result of using the Velvia 50 preset. 
Tag, Hoodie and Bottle
The heat broke for a day as I was headed up to Helsingør in a sometimes steady drizzle. (No wonder Hamlet was gloomy). This was taken as we pulled out of Bispebjerg, one stop away from my son's apartment with my iPhone using the 645Pro Mk III camera App. It (to my mind) is probably the most underrated, app on the market. It feels like a camera.  
Scratched Glass
Ducking out of the drizzle after a rare passing thunderstorm at Hellerup station I saw this fellow traveler huddled against the wall doing the same. The first is with Silver Efex, the second is FilmPack and I can't remember what preset. I usually don't remember because it's really not all that important. They both remind me of a frame snatched from "The Sweeney". (I used the Scots word for "dreary, gloomy, bleak, miserable, grey, depressing, devoid of sunshine" in the caption. No doubt there is an Danish equivalent)
Dreich at Hellerup #1
Dreich at Hellerup #2
Not my best oeuvre but as they say, "A bad day's fishing beats a good day in the office"

Once you get your head wrapped around the idea that people on foot are invisible to anyone on wheels and therefore fair game (hit the photog and level up!) photographing in Copenhagen is quite interesting, especially once you are off the tourist trail and a become attuned to the tempo of the city. Next time, I hope to go out at night as I get the distinct feeling there is a side to Copenhagen that isn't all that hygge and would be very interesting to pretend to be a Brassai and have a look at that.