How big is this photograph?

January 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

This Kodak camera from the turn of the last century produced negatives that measured five inches by seven inches. These negatives were placed in contact with pieces of photographic paper to produce prints. Since this was before enlarging equipment, pretty much all you could make with this camera was 5×7 prints. Later, cameras produced negatives that could be “blown up” in an enlarger to make prints of various sizes, up to several feet on a side. But no matter what camera or film you used, the size of the resulting print was always an important decision, one that was affected by where the photo was going to appear . . . family album, newspaper, magazine, art gallery, etc.

These are still important decisions, even though many photographers now make their images electronically. The ultimate use for photographs still dictates electronic file sizes. But since virtually all of my photographs appear on the Web, it recently occurred to me that I don’t know any more what “size” my pictures are. The decision about whether to make 4×5 or 8×10 or 11×14 or 16×20 inch prints used to be a constant juggle between end-use, cost, and aesthetics. Now, however, these pictures appear as roughly 3×5 on my small laptop screen, much smaller on my iPhone, bigger (possibly) on some of your desktop monitors, and in fact they could be huge if one of you chooses to view them on a big, wall-mounted plasma unit.

Having come of photographic age in the print era, it’s a little disorienting to suddenly have to set aside these considerations. But in the end, I’m much more interested in participating in this incredible electronic distribution system where my photographs can be seen all over the world, no matter how big they are.




Prayer for Japan

March 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Prayer by da_yama
Prayer a photo by da_yama on Flickr.
@浅草寺(Sensouji Temple Asakusa Tokyo)
I am the administrator of a group called “Ricoh CX” on Flickr, for people who use this brand of camera. Ricoh tends to market much more heavily in Japan, so a lot of the participants are Japanese. As you can imagine, there is almost no activity on this group tonight. But there is this shot from a member whose Flickr name is da yama. As with all Flickr accounts, I don’t know his real name, just a handful of facts–male, engineer, likes Italian food and culture. Here is his entry for today–his prayer that the lives of many people will be saved. To which I add my own. I don’t speak Japanese and it seems that a lot of participants in the group don’t speak English, but over the time that the group has been in existence, I feel like I have gotten to know each of them through their pictures, and the terrible events in their country have hit pretty close to home. So tonight I’m sending best wishes out to da yama, ashiachiko (pictures of Japanese architecture and countryside), KKOHEII (incredible food), Yutaka Kanoi (strange and beautiful blue-tinted landscape details), Toshiya-1048 (black-and-white flowers), and so many more.

Are art filters tacky?

February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Toycamera Analogcolor app and Olympus E-PL2 set to pinhole art filter

Many cameras now come with a built-in set of “art filters”–digital simulations of film-era processes that include such things as sepia toning, soft-focus, black borders around the images, and so on. On-line camera reviewers frequently dismiss these as merely gimmicks that are not worthy of the attention of serious photographers.

I disagree. The history of photography is full of techniques that served to both advance the art and to provide photographers with extraordinary images. And at times, many of these were dismissed as gimmicks. For example:

*The soft-focus lens–By creating images that were not highly detailed, these lenses created sensuous, idealized pictures that enabled photographers to go beyond hard, clear facts and express moods and feelings. Used around the turn of the last century, they were reviled as gimmicks by the next generation of photographers.

*Grainy film–By exposing and developing film more intensely than the manufacturer recommends, photographers can capture pictures at low light levels. This, however, increases the size of the microscopic grains of silver in the film, which creates a “grainy” or blotchy effect in the ultimate print. This was used often by photojournalists and subsequently was exploited by fashion photographers and artists to create a sense of journalistic immediacy in their work. Arguably, this was a gimmick when removed from its original intention.

From the very beginning of photography, it has been possible to make very highly detailed, crisp, clear images, which I take as the baseline from which almost any deviation might be described as a gimmick (look at daguerreotypes:

But photographers have also aggressively departed from this baseline throughout the history of the art. There were the soft-focus lenses; various forms of printing, such as bromoil, that reduced the sharp definition of images (see Vintage Pictorialism’s Facebook site for examples); deliberate double exposures; the use of plastic cameras with their distorting lenses; and so on. In fact, I would argue that even some “straight” photographs have a touch of the gimmick in them. Look (to hold up a real classic) at the perfectly black sky in Ansel Adams’s “Moonrise over Hernandez,”  a sky that was dramatized by Adams’s virtuosity in the darkroom. (

Any of these techniques becomes a gimmick when it is used to cover up a photograph that’s weak in the first place. But when they are used intelligently to create images that are strong and meaningful, then they are valuable aids to the art of photography. Rather than scolding camera makers for including them, we should hope that this new round of possibilities will find master photographers who use them to give us greater pleasure and understanding.

“The enemy of photography is the convention. The salvation of photography comes from the experimenter who dares to call ‘photography’ all the results which can be achieved with photographic means with camera or without.” –Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in The New Vision: Forty Years of Photography at the Institute of Design

Just one photograph

January 27, 2011 § Leave a comment


It snowed again. It has snowed forever, which makes it hard to get out and photograph. I was pacing around the house last night, trying to find something to take a picture of. I felt like taking hundreds of exposures!  And that, of course, is what we do with digital cameras . . . it’s no problem to take hundreds and hundreds of pictures because it doesn’t cost anything. But I began to think about photographers in the past, when–especially in tough economic times–film had to be rationed carefully.

I especially remember an article about the great French photojournalist Edouard Boubat that I read long ago. In it, he talked about how he had to be very careful with how much film he used, even on magazine assignments. I no longer have that article, but I did go on the Web and found a Frank Horvat interview with Boubat, in which he talks about pretty much the same thing. “There is a little dilemma that we all face, because we now use those 35mm cameras . . . . Our own drama, with these little 35mm cameras, is that we shoot too much. If we truly were strong, we would only make three or four exposures.”

Of course we have moved “forward” even from the 35mm film days he was talking about, and now we can shoot seemingly endless photos. But thinking about how many of the great photographers of the past were constrained to work with just one roll or a few sheets of film made me slow down, take many fewer photographs than usual, and concentrate on making at least one exposure that I really liked. After I made this image, I put the camera away for the night. I hope you enjoy it too.

What is a digital photograph?

December 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

In the world of analog photography, distinctive mechanical and chemical aspects of cameras and darkroom materials determined what a particular photograph would look like. 35mm cameras always made long, narrow images. Pictures made in the Rolleiflex or Hasselblad were usually (but not always) square. A soft-focus lens made a soft-focus image. Certain combinations of chemicals, film, and paper would produce brown prints, while others would produce color prints, and still others would produce very contrasty black-and-white images. Inexpensive plastic cameras like the Diana would produce images that were soft and gauzy around the edges and fairly sharp in the middle. If you “cross processed” slide film in chemicals intended for print film, you got another kind of distinctive look.

But digital photography is different. My faithful Ricoh CX4, for instance, can produce “standard” color photographs. But it can also just as easily make brown sepia images, “toy camera” images, high-contrast black-and-white, soft focus pictures, cross-processed images, and more. Many new cameras come with creative imaging options like these. My other favorites, the Olympus EP series, for example, also offers many of these possibilities. And this is not to mention the vast array of post-processing applications that are available once a digital picture is in your computer. With a few simple clicks of the mouse, you can mimic the look of almost any type of film, from the sadly departed Kodachrome to push-processed Tri-X and gem-like Polaroids.

It’s possible to look at most kinds of analog images and make a pretty accurate guess as to how they were made—what camera, what film, what paper, what chemistry. Each kind of image was fully influenced and shaped by the equipment and materials that made it. There was what I call a “native state” for analog images, an inherent, fundamental state of being that spoke clearly of each picture’s origin.

My question now is, “What is a digital photograph?” Is there any longer a “native state,” when it’s possible for my Ricoh to mimic the aspect ratios of 35mm, 2 ¼ square, and the oblong of the 4×5 negative? When it can take a picture that looks like it came out of a toy camera, followed by a picture that looks like it was taken with a soft-focus lens, followed by one that looks like it was taken with high-contrast black-and-white film?

It’s interesting that today, so much of what we do in digital has to do with mimicking what we had in analog photography. We spend much of our time reliving what came before. But 50 years from now, when people look back at the arrival of the digital age, what will they identify as digital’s “native state?”

cross processed

soft focus

high-contrast black and white

toy camera setting

Sunflowers in winter

November 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

There is a new show by the German artist Anselm Kiefer at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea. “Next Year in Jerusalem ” deals with Kiefer’s familiar theme, characterized by Roberta Smith in the New York Times as “Germanness and its discontents.” Born at the end of WWII, Kiefer was one of the first post-war artists to tackle the scar his country had left on history. The works in the New York show are vintage Kiefer, enormous constructions, many made of lead, representing destroyed airplane parts, U-boats, and ravaged landscapes. Mixed in are ashes, torn bushes, burlap, synthetic teeth, snakeskins, and multiple references to early German theologians, Norse goddesses, and various ancient religions. As in all his works, Kiefer appears to want to go back to a place before the colossal failures of modern times to find belief systems that might allow us to go forward in some way intact. His extensive use of lead in his sculptures and paintings suggests a hope that alchemy might help here, lead being the base material that was supposed to be transformed into gold. And many of his works contain either sunflower seeds or sunflower plants, which I imagine as representing another kind of transformative hope that we can begin anew to follow the light. I was happy to find these wintering sunflowers in a local garden, soon after reading the exhibition review in the Times.

Here is a quote from Kiefer, taken from the Gagosian press release.

There is a special border, the border between art and life that often shifts deceptively. Yet, without this border, there is no art. In the process of being produced, art borrows material from life, and the traces of life still shine through the completed work of art. But, at the same time, the distance from life is the essence, the substance of art. And, yet, life has still left its traces. The more scarred the work of art is by the battles waged on the borders between art and life, the more interesting it becomes.
–Anselm Kiefer

Still life photographs:The debutante and the wodewose

October 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

She from the glittering ballroom and he from the edge of the forest, a half-tamed creature of the twilight. Her pearls and his roots and shafts. They intersect in ways that neither understands, but that delights both.

The wodewose is a mythological creature known best from English folklore. A wild, hairy man whose origins go back into the darkness before language and who can be found in many cultures, even right up to our Bigfoot. The key is that he is not completely wild, but that he occupies a space just at the edge of our civil lives . . . half seen, half understood, not fully one of us, but not an animal, either.

I love this mixing together of the wild and the cultivated. I remember someone saying about Deborah Turbeville’s photographs that they were taken during “l’heure entre chien et loup,” the hour between the dog and the wolf. This twilight when the wild and the cultivated mix and overlap seems to be the most evocative time of all. And it doesn’t even need to be a time. It can be any state in which the rough and the elegant mingle . . . it’s in a rusting piece of farm machinery or the stained pages of an aging book.   Above all, it’s the mingling of the rough world with the elegance of the photographer’s mind, the place where he or she steps off the path and allows the precision of the camera to engage the tangle of the blackberry canes.

It’s interesting after all these years of photographing to be able to see this as clearly as I have now in the past couple of days, prompted by photographing these pearls. The wild/civilized  interface is the armature around which I have built my body of work (to the extent that you can call my varied ramblings a body of work) and the photographers who have fascinated me–Irving Penn, Turbeville, Josef Sudek, Sarah Moon, Nancy Rexroth, Sally Mann–all share that impulse to one degree or another.

Ricoh CX4

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