Stuck Inside of Lightroom with the COVID Blues Again

Oh noes! Not another variation of Zimmerman's song! Not another post about how much this coronabollocks sucks! Not another whinge about how this is impacting someone's creativity. 

Well, it's not.

Another week, another extension of pandemic restrictions. It's been months since I've done any sort of serious work. Even in Paris my shooting was desultory as I was in tourist mode. I really don't feel like I should be out shooting as it's hardly an essential activity in any way. Unless we get this beast under control a lot of things will come crashing down, like the airline industry where my good lady wife works.

This post is about three things: Creativity blocks, keeping busy in quarantine and the results of the latter.

Creativity Blocks and How We Mess With Our Own Mind

Thomas Heaton, a young landscape photographer out of England posted on YouTube about how the coronabollocks has drained his desire to get out of bed and get out and shoot. Truth be told, that sounds more like incipient depression to me but there you go.

Heaton is a very talented photographer and wears his heart on his sleeve. His images are technical tours de force; lacking a bit of emotion sometimes (for me) but à chacun son goût . Overall I really like his oeuvre.

I get it Thomas. You make your living from this and I feel for you. I had times like this crafting software. There would be days when I could barely put hand to keyboard, all the while the PM (usually me) clamouring for code.

Two things are happening here. Isolation due to lurgi and a lack of desire.

Isolation due to Lurgi? Nothing we can do about that. Creatives sometimes need interaction although I work alone and don't really like photographers' get-togethers all that much: photowalks are not my thing but going to galleries are.

For the absolute lack of desire to get up and shake it? It's a case of writers/artist/photographers/creative block and lots of sort-of-helpful lists are out there on how to deal with it. 

Personally? For photography? I go do something else: build something in the shop, read, walk around without a camera just seeing. The latter frees me from having to schlep gear around and I can just practice seeing things differently, getting ideas and, if I do see something, a modern cellphone camera that can capture DNG (like my iPhone and Camera645Pro -- shameless plug) well Bob's your auntie. For writing? See above but carry a small notebook and write down phrases that come into my head.

In both cases those quick sketches using the mind, a cellphone or a notebook get tossed into a mental stew and later, sometimes months later, as I leaf through them something leaps out and grabs me: a phrase, a bon mot, a partial image. Then, oh and then, the motivation often is such that I can't contain the desire to (figuratively) climb every mountain and ford every stream. The block vanishes and you've got your mojo back.

There are some funny habits that we ape-descendant lifeforms have: categorizing ourselves, overthinking, and looking for the (creative) endorphin rush. These bury our creative juices in a steaming pile of existential muck.

Of the three, categorizing ourselves is probably the biggest block to any creative endeavour. When you're in a creative funk hanging on to "I'm a street tog", "I'm a landscape photographer", "I'm a travel photographer" gets in the way of blowing that funk away. Definitions like that have so much baggage associated with them that they get in the way of any sort of creativity as they bind you into a preset visual language. Yuck. 

The Derbyshire Police handing out tickets for driving out of town to a deserted place to walk and photograph? There's an urban landscape to photograph closer to home. Margaret Bourke-White did an excellent job of photographing the urban landscape. Her images of Cleveland's steel industry show an urban landscape write large and stand up to anything Ansell Adams did.

No one on the streets? Buildings are on the streets. Street photography, unfortunately, seems to mandate a human presence. What then are buildings? Are they not indicative of a human presence? Lee Friedlander's streetscapes are every bit as compelling as those done by any street photographer.

Not to belabour things but consider Picasso. How do YOU categorize him? Guernica? Abstract Portraits? Did you know he designed tiles? Made pottery? For frogs snacks! Don't limit yourselves. Try a different genre at the very least!

I'll only mention the other two in passing. Overthinking is continually analysing something, going around and around and never getting resolution. In hockey I'd see it when a prolific goal scorer went into a slump. Watching him on the ice I'd see him trying to think out the play rather than just reacting. We'd call it "holding the stick too tight". Just go out and put pucks on the net we'd tell him; don't go for the highlight reel play. Same with photography. Travel light, shoot, work quickly, react. Not every shot is going to go in the net, nor will every photograph go into the portfolio but it will end up in your sketch book -- Tom Thompson's oil sketches are worth as much as his paintings. But if you don't make that shot, there's no way it'll happen.

Endorphin Rush? Yeah, I get it. Nothing more exciting or thrilling when that whatever it is goes BONG in your chest and you know that what you're working on is the money shot. We keep wanting to duplicate that feeling and when it doesn't happen you start to jones pushing yourself harder and hard and beating yourself up when you can't get that rush. That's an addictive behaviour. Dunno how you stop that but I always remind myself that a bad day's shooting is always better than sitting in a cubicle.

Lurgi and How to Deal With It

So, what to do when everyone is down with the Lurgi and you can't get out? Well, short of selling brass band instruments to the country, it depends.

Me? I read. Everything from spy novels to history to philosophy to art. I look at other photographers' work and try to learn from them, deconstruct them. There's nothing more satisfying than finally being able to say: "I saw what you did there!"

I've read "The Bloodlands", all of Chandler's Marlowe mysteries, "SevenEves", David Martin's "Road to Seeing", "Margaret Bourke-White" and so on.

I also rummage through my back collection looking at images that I may have discarded or forgotten about or try out some different processing techniques on one that I've worked on before. Heck, given the state of my brain, sometimes all three at once. 

If you're serious about abiding by the "don't go out unless you really need to" dictum to do your part in flattening the curve then that's about all you can do and still keep photographically sane.

Other than write drivel, of course.

Lost Project Found

So I was rummaging through the catalog the other daaay...

And found a number of images that I had started working on but stopped for one reason or another. These things happen. Not sure why these got abandoned but so many things happen around here that images sometimes get put to one side.

Back in the day on 11th St SE there was the Blackfoot Farmers' Market. It was a ramshackle affair and only open during the summer. With two by four and plywood booths the vendors it was kinda a sketchy affair. It had a petting zoo with some goats I seem to recall. My wife and I visited once and wasn't even up to the standard of a roadside fruit stand in the Okanagan; overpriced produce, sketchily wrapped food, you know the drill.

Can't recall how many years ago that it finally packed up but I seem to recall newspaper articles about the stall holders fighting amongst themselves and with the whatever governance was in place. Over time it became overgrown and began to decay. Some homeless moved and were rousted regularly and as usual, the taggers left their mark as well. 

These images show what was left almost 4 years ago. Two years ago they came in with heavy equipment and removed all that was left and now it stores bark mulch in rows between the trees.

I didn't do a lot of post-processing other than cropping and some minor exposure adjustments in Lightroom. The light was magic that March morning and these pretty well match the OOC jpegs. The colours where so vibrant that I didn't even try to do and BW processing. 





Stay safe, wear a mask, get vaxed as soon as you can.


You wore blue; the Germans wore grey

Fractal Chaos
Yes, my wife and I will always have Paris. How we got there and why during these COVID times is a long story involving friends upping stakes to live in Abruzzo, the Cunard line, a therapy dog, baggage allowances, and navigating the goat rodeo that is CDG in Paris. That however is a story for another time and a quantity of libations.

Like everyone who has gone to Paris I had preconceptions of what I would experience. These arose from French classes taken in the distant past when dinosaurs still roamed (or deGaulle at least), Simenon novels (both print and dramatized), movies, paintings of Edouard Cortès and all the other things adheres to you as live. I was very conscious of "Paris Syndrome" that the Japanese even have a name for: pari shokogun. You can look it up in the hive mind. Yet, for some reason it didn't hit me, even with the layers of cultural accretions that had built up over six decades. Paris affected me like no other major city I have traveled to.

I'm not sure why. Perhaps it was the complete dearth of tourists due to travel restrictions — there was no line up at the Louvre for heaven's sakes! Or perhaps it was due to our location, a top notch AirBnB that had a view of the Eiffel Tower. Perhaps it was because I was aware of pari shokogun and determined to avoid it. Most likely though it was because I was there with my wife on our first vacation without obligations since before children.

Looking through my handy-dandy notebook (of course you scribble in a notebook whilst in the cafe having cafe au lait and pain chocolate!) I noted several times how I felt one should approach Paris. One entry reads:

"To embrace Paris is to be embraced by the city itself. There is a degree of fractal chaos present, not only in its layout but in the rhythm of the city [and you have to accept that]. Sure the RER C is not operational [from Notre Dame to Pont Alma, meaning we have to drag our luggage from Notre Dame to our flat] [and it] doesn't show that on the RATP app. [To cope] a Gallic shrug and one moves on. [although at first it really knackered us and we had to stop for fortification]..."

Rosé and Beer

"...Absent the horses the Paris of Cortès is still there but like a French woman of a certain age and breeding it is now discreetly masked only to be revealed to someone who will listen to her stories, flirt with her and pay her the respect she is due..."
Cafe Society
Yes, she is enigmatic and even eccentric but during the course of seven days I have become fond of her. She has a panache that dour Copenhagen will never have. She has a human scale that is absent from New York. She [still] has a passion for life that has all but disappeared (if it ever truly existed) from London. Coming from the pimple on the prairie the old WWI song: "How are You Going to Keep Them Down on the Farm after They've Seen Gay Paree" kept rumbling through my mind.

We did no real touristy things, other than wander about the base of the Eiffel Tower (but did not go up) wandered through Jardin des Tuileries, looked at the Louvre but didn't go in. Instead we wandered. We bought a Navigo card and with three buses (the 42, 69 and 82) stopping across from our apartment we could motor about quickly. If a place looked interesting we'd jump off and explore. No side street was out of bounds. Best of all those three buses gave a good tour of Paris away from the places a Hop-on-hop-off bus tends to frequent. If that didn't work, the Metro at École Militaire was just a few blocks away
A street we found

If it rained, we ducked into a cafe and had a little something. We were never disappointed.

Paris in the rain

Rain will not interfere with our café

There's always a show in Paris. In a way it's less contrived than the show in New York. In New York it feels like people are climbing over each other to stand out; in Paris, not so much.

We had wandered and ended up on Avenue Victor Hugo and then surfaced at the round about that strikes terror into every tourist driver's heart: the traffic circle at Place Charles deGaulle and L'Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile. My wife and I decided to sit and watch the traffic swirl. Oddly enough, there was no mayhem, there was no blaring of horns as mopeds, bicycles, large trucks, buses and cars of all sizes wove around each other. As we were sitting there, a Rolls-Royce drop-head coupe pulled up. The chauffeur stepped out and took the top down to reveal newlyweds. The groom grinning from ear to ear, the bride more interested in her phone.

Grinning for now...

Elsewhere we saw Yorkies in SmartCars, models doing portfolio shoots and people reading. And read they do in Paris. Bookstores without the tat that you find at Chapters, people "discussing" books in bookstores and cafes. Even the act of having a cigarette becomes an act of style. I'm not sure that anyone actually smokes — the cigarette seems to be more of a fashion accessory.

Quick! He's getting away!

Work with me! Yeah Baby!

A quiet afternoon read

It's a fashion accessory! Really it is!

Discarded things had their own stories; not always obvious but there if you had an inventive streak:



The children of Paris had stories all their own. In Jardin du Palais Royal, in the forecourt, some boys playing soccer with all the joy and vitality that children can bring to a game. I have to be honest though, sometimes it resembled "Calvinball". And, unlike in Canada, no aged commisionaire hobbling out to say: "Hey, you can do that 'ere, eh! Now get oot!"

Calvinball à la Parisienne

In a city of 2+ million, the children are free range, unlike here in the pimple on the prairie. Children are either helicopter with parents continually braying at their charges not to do what children naturally do or, worse, not even letting them oot and boot at all — even with parents near to hand. Perhaps it was the arrondissements we were in but children weren't tear-aways, knew how to dine out and would explore the street, park or whatever always returning, always keeping the parent in sight without being nattered at.

We know where we are Mom

Climbing Boy

Whilst wandering through Jardin des Tuileries and stopping at the Bassin Octogonal Dawn befriended two boys and asked them if they wanted to join her and sail some boats that a vendor had. They ran over to their father who shrugged: "Why not?" Much fun, much laughter and much running around the fountain.

Two Boys

Prepare to cast off

We did do one touristy thing. We went to Épernay and toured the champagne caves of Moët & Chandon. After lunch in the vineyard of the Mercier house we toddled down Avenue de Champagne sampling the wares as we went. The smaller houses Champagne de Venoge still pick the grapes from their own vineyards and make champagne very traditionally in oaken casks while the big houses are so industrialized that it seems they live on brand recognition than any sort of artisanal skill. I preferred de Venoge to Moët or Pol Roger as there was an honesty and a connection to the land as opposed to big marketing efforts.



Yes, Paris made an impact on me. Even if this COVID stuff ends and I have to fight hordes of tourists my wife and I have agreed that we will try to go as often in a year as we can. Paris is seductive. She can charm and also annoy yet you can't help but love her.

I'll leave you with two videos: Gershwin's "An American in Paris" and Joni Mitchell's "A Free Man in Paris"

"...I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
There was nobody calling me up for favors
You know I'd go back there tomorrow
But for the work I've taken on..."
Joni Mitchell
Full galleries are here and here.


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!