Some Collected Notes

I always travel with a small notebook (Rhodia if you're asking) with me, either in my camera bag or my book bag. It's handy for noting addresses of people you meet, scribbling down impressions, overheard conversations and noting things you read that are of interest.

Here are few notes (shown in italics) that I've taken and expanded upon

Overheard at ICP

The ICP (International Centre for Photography) in New York was hosting a show by Sebastiao Salgado showing pictures from his book "Genesis". The photographs were stunning, to put it mildly. I wish I could have bought the huge version of the book but there was no way I'd be able to fit into even the most gargantuan of suitcases; it would have required its own seat on the airplane!

Genesis, a long term project, spanned eight years as he visited 30 of the Earth’s most pure and untouched sites. He was inspired to do the project because up until that point people had been the central subject of his work. He says that he “… wished to photograph the other animals, to photograph the landscapes, to photograph us, but us from the beginning, the time we lived in equilibrium with nature.”

I just sat an stared and dripped water on the floor (I had become drenched on the way there). I just wished everybody else would have just STFU and respect the images.

As I wandered from one gallery to the next I came upon a group of intense students led by a similarly intense instructor making the rounds of the gallery. Notebooks at the ready, hipster beards a quiver, hipster spectacles glinting efficiently, hanging on every word of the instructor they prepared for the next koan from the instructor.

Koan is perhaps overstatement as there was no subtlety in the question posed (as noted in my handy-dandy notebook):
"Does Salgado's use of aesthetics diminish the validity of the images and reduce the political content of the image...does it help or hinder the cause..."
Uh, wait, what? What cause? What political content? I saw none. Perhaps I'm naive (probably), stupid (highly likely) or both but what I saw was a collection of gripping images that reflect the purpose quoted above.

What I saw were images of stunning power, especially the mountain images taken in the Yukon. How can aesthetics reduce the validity of an image? Does an image need to be cack-handed to be "valid"? Does an image need to be gag-reflex inducing to "help the cause"?

I recommend Salgado's book. Buy the largest one you can afford (it's printed in many sizes).

A Recurrent Meme (or is it a trope?)

"I want the image that I make to be an accurate representation of what I saw through the viewfinder"
Nope, ain't ever gunna happen.

Your eye is so much more versatile than a camera. Your eye can skip and dance over its field of view, moving around the scene in three dimensions. Our image processor correlates the images, however fleeting, with past experiences, knowledge, prejudices, hopes and desires. The camera just maps a three dimensional view into a 2 dimensional rendering devoid of meaning. Your selection of framing is informed by your past experiences; a photograph will never be an accurate representation of what was there, let alone what you (thought) you saw.

It is the aesthetics of the image that bring out the meaning, taking the work of a mechanical transcriptor and turning it into a sonnet, a fugue, a short story.

The initial image is the germ of the idea, the final preparation for printing the hard labour of the poet on choosing the correct words, the author tirelessly rewriting that one section that doesn't quite work until, finally, the nuance, the feeling that you felt when you made that image weeks ago pops out of the developing tray.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't get it as right as possible in camera. At least get the exposure correct and the framing as close as reasonably possible. I have no issues burning and dodging, selectively sharpening and adjusting local contrast to tell my story, to make that poem. I deviate from the the "No crop" school as I often print images in different sizes and aspect ratios. Shooting both 3:2 and 4:3 formats I have to crop one or the other make the prints consistent. I tend to leave some slop around the edges to give me enough to "cloth" to make my suit from.

The Price of a Painting

 From a documentary on the 10 most valuable paintings every sold at auction
"The price of a painting [or any piece of art] is not the value of a painting or an indication of its importance. It's just the result of two people bidding against each other."
'Nuff sed.

Photograph is Dialectic between Photographer and Subject

Now there's an interesting note heading. Sounds like some introduction to a discussion of Marxist theory or something equally arcane. This is what I wrote under that heading:
"The subject presents, the photographer reacts and the conversation continues. Almost like an ongoing moment. You never really leave the subject behind, the conversation you had with it influences the interactions you have with another subject even if it is in a completely different setting or subject space"
Either I'm incredibly pretentious or this makes some shred of sense. I've been reading and annotating Jerry Thompson's slim little volume "Why Photography Matters" and working through some of the concepts. I'm working up a little review on this book and this was a synthesis of one of the sections.

And Furthermore!

Like Steve in "Blue's Clues" always carry your handy dandy notebook and write those ideas down. Most wull be crap, but there maybe a nugget of gold hidden somewhere. Take the time to sit in your "Thinking Chair" and ruminate and expand on those notes. A whole new avenue of projects or ways of seeing just may present themselves!


Some Local Colour

Traditional street photography gravitates towards black and white images. I prefer black and white for street work to isolate the shapes and themes I find interesting in the image; sometimes colour just works a charm.

Times Square at night is a riot of colour. After the "clean up" it lost most of its grit, save the cranky cartoon character clad panhandlers and the occasional scalper hustling tickets. The lighting, on the other hand, rivals Las Vegas and Shinjuku in Tokyo (I should dig up the those Japanese images). I used to sweat things like colour balance and such, but really, it's such a pop-art atmosphere in these sort of situations that I just set everything to auto white balance and go.

Road Warriors
Rain always makes for some interesting colour images, especially if there are some bright colours to work with. The umbrella image in my previous post was basically a monochrome image and it worked better, in my opinion, as black and white. On the other hand this image of Times Square with the slashing line of red tables glistening in the rain shows what you can get on a rainy day.

Red Tables
New York's finest are getting a lot of flak right now but the Traffic Division always gives a wonderful source of material. Some look like dancers, some look like actors, some could be evangelical tent preachers as they herd New York's obdurate traffic around construction, parades, protests and whatever the hell else happens on New York's streets. Again, the rain really saturated this traffic cop's safety vest and his arms outstretched in benediction belie the fact that he was questioning an Escalade driver's ancestry, sexual proclivities and planetary origin.
I posted this red Eldorado in my first series of posts about New York but I went back and did some post processing to it. There is a wonderful set of Kodachrome presets for LightRoom that for the life of me I can't remember where I found them; I do recall that they were free. Anyway, here's that red Eldorado processed as Kodachrome 25.

Red Eldorado


Waiting and Watching

New York is a city of intersections: streets intersect avenues, social castes intersect, and all the while there are people, people waiting and watching. Even though New York is a city that seems in perpetual motion, if you watch and wait, you’ll catch those people waiting and watching.
This was one of my first photographs I made during my stay in New York. I heard the rat-tat-tat of high heels and turned around and saw a woman in white dashing down the stairs to catch the subway while the hipster watched the scene around him.

Uptown & The Bronx
My second day in New York alternated between a light mist and pelting rain. I was wet and grumpy but my heavens the reflections and the light made up for wet socks and fogged over glasses. Pausing at an intersection on 6th Avenue, I saw this collection of Wet Mushrooms and a bit further on one of New York’s finest stoically enduring the rain.

Wet Mushrooms
In Soho there is a cafĂ© called Fanelli’s. They say it’s one of the oldest in New York dating back to 1847. I had a good lunch there. Afterwards I stood at the intersection of Mercer and Prince and watched the watcher watching the watchers.

Watching the Watchers
Bus stops are interesting places. People wait, people watch. Like the future, the bus will come.

5th Ave/W 23rd Street


New York State of Mind

Daddy don't drive that Eldorado no more
New York remains what it has always been: a city of ebb and flow, a city of constant shifts in population and economics, a city of virtually no rest. It is harsh, dirty, and dangerous, it is whimsical and fanciful, it is beautiful and soaring – it is not one or another of these things but all of them, all at once, and to fail to accept this paradox is to deny the reality of city existence
Paul Goldberger

Swept up the stairs at Penn Station on a tide of bustling humanity and emerging like a blinded mole from the labyrinth underneath Madison Square Garden you are subjected to an opto-aural assault that, if you (like me) are from one of the quieter metropolises, leaves you weak in the knees. The energy is palpable, the billboards seizure inducing and the combined noise of millions of cellphones beeping, people talking and taxis honking have the eardrums cowering in submission.

I was in New York a few weeks ago; it was my first visit and I wanted to prove myself on the same streets that the great photographers prowled and still prowl. Boy did I ever feel like a beer league hockey player in the NHL.

The pace on the streets is incredible. Scenes coalesce and then vanish in an instant. You have to learn to see and react in a heartbeat. In cities where I’ve worked the street in the past you have enough time to frame, focus and shoot. In NYC: frame and go. If you don’t have your cameras setup beforehand: too bad, so sad.

I would get up at around 9, have breakfast and hit the streets and work till around 4 in the afternoon. If my feet could stand it, I’d go out at night for a few hours to watch the street theatre unfold.

A preliminary look at the photos doesn’t show a lot of promise but they do seem to show improvement in technique and composition as the week went on. I’ve put this trip down to an initial recce and learning mission as I wasn’t focussing on any theme or idea: I was trying to drink from a fire hose!

What did I learn? 

Where to begin! I learned more in these 6 days than I have in months.

Urban Geography 

The light in New York is special. I could never figure out why the streets seemed to be always in a way so differently from Calgary. Part of it is latitude and elevation but mostly it’s the orientation of the streets. Downtown Calgary is oriented east-west and the streets are not very long relatively speaking. The office towers block the light for most of the day, with only a few street corners getting any sort of decent light. The only light is early in the morning and even then only at certain times in the spring and fall.

New York on the other hand is oriented north-south and its streets stretch for miles; the topography of the buildings let the light fall in a way that gives a wonderful chiaroscuro.

As well the street action is relentless. Even though the office towers dwarf those in Calgary, the streets are packed with people interacting with each other face to face, on cellphones or just doing their jobs. In Calgary, the Plus-15 pushes everything up into a warren of corporate habitrails leaving the streets empty except for the homeless and the lost tourist. 


Looking at my images I found the perspectives skewed with respect to other photographers who had walked the same streets. Well, turns out that at 6’ 4” I’m about 9 inches taller than the average male so my POV is automatically different. I experimented shooting from chest level with an Olympus XZ-2 (it has the flip out screen). That’s about 2 feet lower than my normal vantage point and the perspectives (lo and behold) had a more familiar look to them. So, I guess I have to learn to use my height as a way of giving a unique view of the streets.


The pace is so fast: if you don’t know your gear you may as well forget it and go home. New York is not the place to try and figure out how your equipment works and still make any meaningful images. I knew where all the buttons and dials where on my two long-time friends: the M-E and E-P2 which allowed me to adapt my slower, studied shooting style to a more frenetic one. The one thing I really had to learn was where the “nub” on the Biogon 35 was. This, combined with using hyperfocal and zone focusing, let me make instant adjustments without trying to line up spots in the rangefinder.

I picked up an Olympus XZ-2 while I was there and luckily the control layout (the important ones) is very similar to that of the EP2 and with the level of customization that Olympus offers I was able to set things up so it was transparent to my hands which camera I was using.

The one thing that got up my snout with my gear was the truculent AF of the E-P2. Even with just one focus point enabled, it would sometimes hunt and hunt and I’d never truly know what it focussed on. The XZ-2 was a better performer in that regard and I'm seriously looking for a used EP-5 to replace the E-P2.

(The reason I shoot both Olympus and Leica is that I love the 45mm Oly lens. It gives me a discreet 90 portrait lens and under the right conditions it gives you some amazing street shots: isolating the story from all the other stories.)

Thank heavens that I travel light. I know that Tod Papageorge prowled Central Park with a 4x5 view camera, channeling Brassai, but I'm old, my back gets sore and I worked in the patch for too long for my knees to deal with carrying a lot of kit around. It’s why I like my Leica and Olympus. I use a small home converted shoulder bag from Red Canoe and all in I only carry about 3 pounds. I pity the tourist I saw in Times Square with a honking big DSLR of some type, huge zoom lens and a backpack with more gear and a tripod. My back started to hurt just looking at him. 

The Fundamentals

My understanding of exposure and reading the light was really put to the test. With all that wonderful light I was faced with everything from dark shadow to bright whites. You have to make an instant decision if you want to use any exposure compensation. Yes, you can fix things in post, but getting it close is better than being way off. Again it’s all about reaction time. I’m fortunate, I learnt on a match needle exposure system and before that with an incident light meter so it was a bit easier but I still had to work at it as I've gotten lazy of late.

If you want to make your rangefinder or manual focus camera sing on the streets hyperfocal and zone focusing is one of those things you need have down cold; that and being able to judge distance. It works like this: Set your focus zone and then wait, like a fisherman waiting for that trout. Watch the story evolve, anticipate and when the moment happens pounce, working feverishly to try and get as much of the story into the can as possible. Don't mess around with focussing, just focus (dear god, did I write that?) on the framing. If you’ve set up properly you’ll get the story, or at least most of it. I had to remind myself of this again and again. I have to get this to become much more instinctive.

You have to know your composition down cold. Now, I’m not averse to cropping, straightening and other magic but you truly have to always aware of when you are in the presence of an image and you have to work that scenario until the scene goes away. If anything I didn’t work some scenes enough and left some images “on the table” as it were.

Why they say 28 on the streets

I seem to recall a comment (probably apochryphal) made by HCB when asked why he used a 50mm all the time: “Well,” he said with a Gallic shrug and an impish grin, “a wide angle makes it too easy.”

Easy for him, perhaps; I toiled mightily, finding my 35 too long because of the narrowness of the sidewalks and the volume of people. I can understand why a 28 would possibly be preferable and why some street photographers like the up close work that a 28 or wider lets you do. I did finally get a handle on the 35 and became comfortable with it, but as with all technique, I’ll need a lot more practice.

Learning to Dance

I keep talking about pace and rhythm. Going from Calgary to Vancouver to Toronto to New York I learned that the rhythm of the streets are so very different and the way I, as a photographer, danced to that rhythm impacts how your images turn out. Being able to feel, understand and then respond to those rhythms when you first get to a new place is crucial. I’m still learning those chops.

Strand Books

I learned that I can’t go in there with a credit card. I came out with about 200 bucks worth of books. I could have spent triple that. What a wonderful place. My good lady wife has confiscated 3 of them and I don't get them till Christmas.

Final Thoughts

Well, off to the darkroom. The lead-in shot was a quick grab from my upload in the library (Thank you, Steely Dan, for the title) and I'll leave you with this one: 

Position of Strength

Once I boil down all the frames to something worthwhile (maybe 5 based on my first run through) I'll share them with you.

Oh yeah. I can hardly wait to go back. If I had a plane ticket for tomorrow…

There’s one last quote I want to share:

One belongs to New York instantly; one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in 5 years”  Tom Wolfe


"Facepalm" or Sometimes, you just gotta wonder: 'What was I thinking?'

There are two adages that I’ve heard over the years I’ve been photographing; there are many more, these are apropos to this post.  I remember reading in some book on technique:  
“If you’re walking forward, turn around and look backwards.”
 and hearing at a photography seminar: 

“Review your rejects. You just may have overlooked something in those contact sheets.”
I’d finished the edits of my Toronto trip and was at a bit of a loose end. It was late at night in the OCC and I had my laptop with me and noticed that I had this folder in Lightroom called Uncataloged.  I remember that I had done some work there, but for the life of me I couldn't remember what. Stepping through the Lightroom catalog in a kind of desultory fashion, not really looking directly at the images but seeing them out of the corner of my eye I was looking for something to jump out at me. They say that if you want to see an animal, you’d see it best by not looking straight at it, especially if it was hidden. Although this is best for detecting motion, it was late in the evening and I wanted to see what would pop out of the thickets.

About half way through, I came up on two images. The first had me doing the proverbial facepalm. I had given this image one star and for whatever reason it never progressed further. I don’t know why. Other images did rank higher and may be slightly stronger; this image is, in retrospect, strong as the others. 

It was early April when I made this image. I do recall turning and reacting to this “homme d'affaires” striding through spring sun. I had metered on the sidewalk earlier and as I turned to look back, there he was. In post, I cropped a bit and then ran the image through SilverFX.

A little later, I ran into an image made about seven month earlier. Again it was one of those where I had metered on the sidewalk and turning around and looking backwards to where I had come from, there she was on her bicycle. Those of you who know Calgary, will know that this street corner is usually quite packed with traffic and yet here she is, serenely cycling on a September afternoon.

I can understand why maybe this one ended up on the cutting room floor as the woman is slightly out of focus. I cropped and straightened things out a bit and again ran the image through SilverFX. 

Always turn and look, you never know what is going on behind you. Turn back the pages and look at what you’ve discarded. You’re a different photographer today than you were yesterday, last week, last month. Go back a year and you’ll see how your sensibilities have changed and that dog of a photo may just be the one that shouldn't have gotten away.

New on the Bookshelf

I love books about photography, books of photographs and books about photographers. Reading other photographers insights into the craft, criticism of the craft, deconstructing other photographers images all help me on this odd journey that I'm on. Unlike some photographers, I don't have GAS, I suffer from BAS!  In the past month or so lots of new books have arrived on my desk. I might comment on some of them more formally in the future. (The books with a * next to the title are in process of being read, the books with a # next to them have been read)

  • *"Road to Seeing" by Dan Winters. A massive book, wonderfully printed, chronicling the events in Winters' life that had an impact on how he views photography and his image making process.
  • #"Here Far Away" by Finn Thrane, Images by Pentti Sammallahti. I'm always on the look out for books by photographers of other nationalities. Again, a wonderfully printed book and Sammallahti are fascinating to study.
  • *"The Digital Print: Preparing Images in Lightroom and Photoshop for Printing" by Jeff Schewe. An excellent resource and I've learned an amazing amount already.
  • *"Why Photography Matters" by Jerry L. Thompson. A slim volume of less than 100 pages. It's one of the few books I started re-reading the day after I finished it. Commentary coming soon.
  • *"Believing is Seeing" by Errol Morris. Examines the back stories to photographs such as Fenton's "Cannonballs in Crimea" and examines the"received wisdom" regarding the photos.
  •  #"About Looking" by John Berger. Although I don't care for Berger's Marxist theory of criticism, at least he's honest about it and doesn't come across like a clever boots like Sontag.
  • #"Understanding a Photograph" by John Berger; Edited by Geoff Dyer. See above
  • #"Ways of Seeing" by John Berger. Neatly kicking Sir Kenneth Clarke's traditional view of European art in the groin, it's a companion book to his BBC series from early 70's. The series is up on YouTube and the book and series is worth a read/look. It's available at Amazon, I found my copy in a used book store.
  • "Camera Lucida" by Roland Barthes. I've been beating my head on this one for over a year. I will get through it one day, honest. Even if takes a bottle of Absinthe!
  • *"Aperture Magazine Anthology - The Minor White Years" Edited by Peter Bunnel. Interesting read to be sure. Looking back at the issues facing photographers in the 50s, they're not all that different from now in reality. The advent of relatively inexpensive high performance cameras where bringing a lot of amateurs into the professional ranks, undercutting them on price for portraits, weddings and the like. Sound familiar? Articles by some of the great photographers and photo editors of the time on composition, captioning, photo critique and the like are a very good resource and refresher.
My son went on an exchange program to Japan and brought me back these two jewels. Both are beautifully printed on heavy paper. If you can find them, they are a delight to look at.
  • "Ephemeral Dreams - Building 30 on Battleship Island" by Masashi Takahashi. Photos of an abandoned industrial island off the shore of Japan. The book takes images from 1972, just before the island was abandoned to images taken this year.
  • "Sleeping Beauty" by Shozo Maruta. Very interesting collection of images of old Japanese street cars rotting away.   
Once these are read, I'll be diving into the reading lists that MIT has provided with their photography course outlines.


Riding the Rocket

"Riding the Rocket" is probably the easiest way to get around Toronto, once you have overcome the usual barriers to access that are thrown in the face of tourist transit users everywhere. When I first went to Tokyo (which made it easy for us gaijin) a colleague dragged me out of the hotel  to learn the Tokyo subway system. His thing was that if you can figure this the subway systems as soon as possible, no matter where you are, you are independent and won't get extorted by cab drivers. I don't know if the fact that he was Parisian had anything to with it, but going subway navigating is one of the first things I do when I get to a metropolis.

Sitting in a subway car can be a fascinating source of images but most subways have admonitions about photographing on their property. Camera phones have improved to the point now that you don't need to hide a bulky camera underneath an overcoat with a remote release like Walker Evans did. You just look intently as if you are reading a Facebork post and click, there you are. Now, I'm no Walker Evans; I did have a lot fun making these images though.

I've really come to like Camera+ on my iPhone. I've been using since I got my first iPhone three years ago: exposure compensation, movable focus and exposure points, great built-in post processing. It's my go-to app and the reason why I didn't switch to Android when I had to renew my cellphone.

Riding the Bloor-Danforth line the cars lined up and framed in a window was this young woman in intent conversation.
Passing Conversation
I've got this thing for a band called "The Shuffle Demons". So, of course while I was in Toronto I did walk along Spadina Avenue, looking for Bus 77B on the TTC. Never did find it. I did however "get confirmation of my information about my transportation to Spadina Station".
Spadina Station
One trick I used was to place the camera up against the window and click as the station pulled into or out of a station.
Waiting for the Rocket
Ghost In the Machine
I don't think this image would have even worked with anything but a phone camera. This is the operator's ready room at Eglinton Station. There was a screw up (according to the drivers) and the conversations where getting fairly heated. The supervisor (with the white cap) was going toe to toe with a driver and a shop steward, while the other drivers where waiting to see how things would turn out, lobbing the occasional mortar round at the other supervisor.
Union Meeting
You could ride the Rocket for days and never run out of material; you slice through a city from one end to another and get a real sense of the rhythm of the place. Next time more time to be spent on the street cars, and dammit, I will ride on the 77B of the TTC!

People Come, People Go

One thing that is a certainty in the aviation business, especially a charter operation, is that pilots will always move on. Usually it's because they're chasing bigger, faster aircraft with the hope of ending up at a mainline carrier.

I seldom "play requests" as I shoot for myself but one of our pilots is leaving to fly a 737 after several years at North Cariboo and he asked me to make a few images next to the aircraft he flew while he was here. He was a close a friend as you can get in this gypsy industry so I said sure.

I shot the usual but as we were finishing up he walked over to get the prop ties and engine plugs. I turned and saw him walking into the sun. One shot was all I had.

See ya buddy. It was a delight working with you. Hope to work with you again.


Conversation and Communion

Granville Street February
I was in Vancouver earlier this year for a break from the "maximum effort" flying that is so common for our charter operation during the winter. A typical Vancouver February: watery sun, flat light and on my last full day, fog, misty rain and a cloud deck that aviators would call VV001. 
I grew up in many places in British Columbia, but Vancouver was one like a perihelion for my family's orbit around the province as the government of the time was pulling the transportation infrastructure into the twentieth century. Every city has a DNA and no matter what sort of urban renewal happens, if you scratch deep enough you'll find it. When I get into Vancouver I still feel, like Commander Vimes, the cobbles through the soles of my shoes even if where the Cafe Heidelberg once was there no stands a glitzy temple to trendy fashions. 

Evenings in Vancouver are special, no matter what time of year. The streets always have something going on - unlike Calgary where it's a stampede out of the city to the suburbs leaving the hivemind empty save for the immigrant cleaners tidying up after a day’s hard free enterprise. Just standing on a corner gives you boatloads of ideas and images.

While I was out walking a small idea for a project started to glimmer in my mind; I noticed that everywhere people were huddled close together in conversation over food. In groups of two, three and more people laughed, flirted, argued, wept.
Don't Cook - Just Eat

Diner Date


Looking at the take from the two evenings I saw something else. The interaction between the service people and food truck operators was a similar to the interaction between priest and communicant. Makes sense, Communion does commerate a meal.

Waiting for the Host

Of course, not all the priests had communicants. Like one of Pratchett's Small Gods they had few if any adherents, no matter how inviting the chapel
Hot Dog

Pizza, Lasagna, Poutine

And some were excommunicated or never had a small god. Wandering Vancouver's East Side this fellow stopped me. He had an interesting story and we shared a conversation; he gave me two cartoons he had sketched and I gave him some money for a coffee.
Itinerant Cartoonist

Techincal Notes

The usual rig (not that it really matters but some people care): Lieca M-E (Biogon 35/'Cron 50), EP-2 (Olympus 45). All with my usual workflow: Raw conversion and exposure correction in Lightroom, noise reduction and sharpening with NIK and final post with NIK (Viveza/Silver Efex).