LightRumors

…and why would two proto-hippies with backpacks and a $2 a day budget even try such a venture in the first place?

We had been a week in Istanbul by that time and were now old hands at dealing with the chaos of the city. Bargaining in the bazaar meant we could argue down prices that had been tripled when they saw us coming to only double what we should have paid. Win-win! Sorting out where to go next and how to get there was the biggest problem. Minor problems included Nelson narrowly escaping getting busted when he spent a night at the Gulhane hotel looking for more hashish. When his room was raided, he hadn’t made any purchases yet…

At the Pudding Shop, we met another traveller who said the train to Teheran cost $25 and was a long, uncomfortable ride, but we could save money and have a better time of it going deck class on a boat up the Black Sea. That sounded good-an ocean cruise!

In this case, the ocean liner was more than slightly smaller than the Queen Mary and deck class was the forward hold, a concrete floor we shared with a Turkish peasant family and a few sundry Turkish soldiers, privates, no doubt. And a Scottish traveler, Bill. We left Istanbul late in the afternoon and soon realized another difference between our cruise and a Princess Line spin around the South Pacific-it was cold! And concrete is cold to sleep on when you don’t even have a sleeping bag. But I did make one amazing discovery thanks to Bill. Remember, this is 1968, or, for those of you who can count your decades on just one hand, the Dawn of Civilization. I had never heard of down sleeping bags, but Bill had one and Nelson and I were amazed at what it offered, for the size, vowing right there that if we ever did something like this again, it would be with one of those miracles of modern invention.

A night of shivering wasn’t actually fatal, and the next morning Nelson and I wandered up to one of the actual decks topside (as they say in the maritime world), hoping to breath a little fresher air and maybe find a warming ray of sun. Of course, deck class peons such as ourselves didn’t actually have permission to be topside. After a half hour of early morning light and minimal solar warmth, and an increasing amount of smoke from the ship’s stacks, due, we thought to the vagaries of the wind, an epalauted officer of non-specific rank informed us in broken English that our proffered ticket stubs entitled us to the concrete floor of our anchor hold in the ship’s prow, and nothing more. So we we scooted back in that direction, glad to be out of the smoke, at least. We passed scurrying crew responding to distorted loudspeaker commands in Turkish as we made our way back to quarters. And that really was a lot of smoke…

Once back to our concrete cell, I looked out the porthole and could see several fishing boats from some nearby village (we were about a mile off shore) circling the Ordu, our erstwhile craft, and peeking further down its flank, an awful lot of smoke. More befuddling announcements in Turkish came from the loudspeakers and our compartment mates began exchanging frantic looks. An officer then appeared, speaking first to them and then in a fair English to us, saying the Ordu’s engines had caught fire and we were abandoning ship.

OK….

We were by then a little used to things seeming more chaotic than they actually were and it wasn’t like the ship was producing any flames we could see. Not even listing to one side or the other. It had just come to a stop. We were then informed that life boats were being lowered and we must go. And leave our possessions behind.

 

Uh, no. Not going to happen. The three of us backpackers decided that if we waited for the last boat it probably wouldn’t be full and we would have room for our stuff. And we were right.

The life boats had filled and the stragglers (including us) were offered a ride to shore in one of the small fishing boats. It even had a motor!

We landed in the small village of Kurukasile, where we were probably the biggest thing to happen in the history of the place.

The only hotel in town filled up immediately with the other Turkish speaking passengers. Bill, with his very useful sleeping bag, went off in search of some place to lay it down for the night. Nelson and I hung around the tea shop, drinking glass after glass of sweet Turkish tea and trying to find that one officer who spoke enough English that we might implore him to help us find a place for the night.

Eventually, he did show up at the tea shop around 8 p.m. and heard our plea, then went off again. When he returned shortly, he had in tow a little old man, Mohmet Aytan, a resident of the village, who offered us a room in his home for the night. We gladly accepted, thanking both as best we could, and followed our guide through the woods to a small building that seemed to be made of sticks and random boards, no electricity, where we were ushered through, passing dimly lit rooms occupied by bescarved womenfolk, to a room in the back with a large bed and walls decorated by Tarzan movie posters in Turkish, lit by a lone kerosene lamp. A pile of chestnuts lay by the door.

Several minutes later, our host returned with a wooden stand covered with newspaper on which he placed numerous plates of food. There were green beans, fish, loaves of bread and onions. The three of us ate communally from the bowls. The beans were almost as good as the excellent fish (well, it was a fishing village.) We stuffed ourselves. This was followed by hot tea, lots of it, pears, figs and later, roasted chestnuts.

Mohmet brought in a young man of about 20, who I believe was his son, then a young boy of about five. Following these two were three daughters, a toddler, one about six and the oldest who appeared to be about ten years old. He then handed us an English primer and pointed to the oldest girl. Apparently, she was studying English in school. The name in the book was Hatiche and she was about the shyest little girl I’d ever met. One smile in her direction and she’d blush and turn away. We wrote a note of thanks in the primer and hoped her teacher would translate. I also took down their address and promised to send a picture when I could.

We were then told that a boat would arrive in the morning to take us back to Istanbul. That was the best we could hope for. We would wait and catch the next one to our destination of Trabzon, further east along the Turkish coast of the Black Sea.

After a heartfelt round of hugs and handshakes, we turned in for the evening and gladly burrowed into a pile of blankets large enough to smother a whale, secure under the gaze of Tarzan.

We were awakened at 5:30 a.m. and fed a breakfaste of tea and bread before exchanging our good-byes and wandering back to town. We could see the still smoking ORDU off the coast and its replacement in closer to shore. While waiting again in the tea house, one of the ship’s officers told us the replacement boat would actually continue on to Trabzon, so we wouldn’t have to double back to Istanbul after all. Hooray!

While waiting to board our new boat, a news crew from an Ankara newspaper and a TV station came out and interviewed Nelson and I at the cafe as we munched on apricots. Slow news day, I guess.

***

Thus ended our plight as shipwrecked refugees in need of safe harbor…which, of course, was not the case at all. We were never in danger, we had a great adventure, met people who befriended strangers and invited them into their home. Today, I can reflect back on my experience 50 years ago and still feel that gratitude. And when I look on how certain factions of our country now treat refugees in far more dire straights, I, like so many of us, can only wonder why a peasant family in rural Turkey could share what little they had with two foreign strangers but America, the richest country…yada, yada, yada, can only meet them with armed troops.

***

When I returned home to California, I did send a photo of Mohmet standing in front of his home to the address I had been given. Five years later, after I had returned from last and longest trip abroad, I received a letter from his daughter, Hatiche, written in Turkish. I found a transloator on the UC Berkeley campus and learned that they had enjoyed our visit and thanked me for the picture. And Hatiche said she was now married.

With no sleeping bags and no village nearby to find a room for the night, Nelson and I were relieved to see the black sedan with Yugoslav plates stopped for us as night fell in a lonely Alpine valley in Austria.

Remember, however, 1968 was the height of the Cold War. Russia had invaded Prague a week or so earlier. Yugoslavia, while not “Russian” was Communist. And we were young and ignorant. What were we getting ourselves into? The driver spoke little English but we got the idea across that we were headed to whatever the first town was. Our imagination was given free reign by the dark winding mountain road, a little erratic driving and mysteriousness of venturing out of the known embrace of Europe to the mysterious beginnings of the Balkans-a word loaded with intrigue, even if I didn’t know what exactly a “Balkan” was.

We survived the drive and made it to some small village that, at almost 8 p.m., was mostly unlit, quiet, little sign of life evident anywhere. But the Tourist Board was open for a few more minutes and after communicating our need for a place to stay and maybe, some food, the not quite comatose official informed us we were out of luck on the second request, but maybe he could find a place for us for the night. Twenty minutes later, a young girl, early teens, invited us with her passable English to follow her. And we set off through dark streets to our fate.

This was passably strange enough that Nelson and I felt a need to communicate privately, but our guide spoke English and we spoke nothing else. But, in an inspired effort to foil any  unfolding Commie plot to waylay two naive Westerners, we started talking to each other in…Pig Latin!

Ancay ouyay elievebay atthey?

After mutually relieving each other of our doubts and fears, we soon found ourselves welcomed into a modest home where our guide and her family made us comfortable and provided a plate of quite agreeable food before showing us to a room with a bed that sported a six inch thick feather filled comforter. And comfortably we did sleep, deep in the dark Communist bosom until dawn and a light breakfast sent us on our way to the local train station and our further journey south. Whew!

I don’t remember much about the train trip south, a foggy morning in Ljubjlana and on towards the even more Red country of Bulgaria, where at least I could try out my rudimentary Russian. But two years later, when Loretta and I were retracing this part of the trip, I shot a picture that has stayed with me as one of my all-time favorites, with a poignancy that grew with time.

My camera case in those days was a re-purposed women’s makeup case, wooden construction, solid, about a foot square and 5 inches deep, Sturdy clasps and a strap I fashioned from a two inch canvas strap of surplus store vintage. Amazingly enough, I still have that case and use it for miscellaneous odds and ends. Because of its durability, I used it for sitting, such as the morning that found us waiting for a train, on a platform with no seats. I was repairing a camera lens (a cheap 28mm, if I remember correctly) that had come loose in its mount, using the jeweler’s screw drive set I carried with me for just such use.

A train was waiting on nearby tracks and these guys got a kick out of watching this hapless American with tiny screws and lens elements spread out in front of him. They waved and mugged for my camera-my 50mm lens was a good Nikkor and still in one piece-and I grabbed this shot and waved back as their train pulled away.

Flash forward a few decades to the terrible times of the war in the Balkans, as Yugoslavia fell apart into the worst kind of sectarian violence. I look at this picture…three friends traveling together. Each of clearly different ethnicities. Where did they stand during the conflict? Across imaginary lines shooting at one another? Did any of them survive that fighting? Would they still know each other? I’ll never know the answers, but they were friends then, in 1970.

 

Onward…

October 4th, 2018

Half A Century Ago, cont.

As we headed across Europe, October found Nelson and I in Münich around the time of Oktoberfest. Now, I was not much of a beer drinker, coming from the U.S. in the 60s-the land of Budweiser, et al. But hey, we can walk around the fair grounds eat wurst. I’d been photographing earlier around the beer gardens the Münich is famous for all year round and I’d snapped a few pictures. I still had the camera with me that evening and at one point, these two guys-German soldiers on leave for the evening, invited us to sit with them. We ordered a couple of liter steins of brew. Two Deutschmarks, about fifty cents, each. It was NOT Bud…

The soldiers were already pretty looped by then and insisted after this picture that we trade hats while we sat with them. The cameraderie was a pleasant addition to the buzz from the potent beer and I left realizing there was more to beer than I’d thought.

After Münich, we took a day to visit the Black Forest. It was, uh, very dark.

Which I always thought this shot captured perfectly.

From Germany we crossed into Austria with a couple of days in Vienna. But our urge to get to Asia was stronger than our taste for schnitzel and we found ourselves at the side of the road, deep in the mountains near the border with Yugolsavia. Night was falling and only one car had passed, studiously ignoring our pleading thumbs. Just as the last of the skylight was failing, a small black sedan with Yugoslav plates pulled over and we climbed in. We were a little nervous, entering a Communist country for the first time and in the dark…

But I must digress…since this narrative is following no timeline, these two pictures are from my third trip, in 1972. I’d bought a Citroen 2CV, in Amsterdam and met a woman, Trygve, who also hailed from Berkeley and we headed down to Salzburg in that amazing vehicle.

It had been cloudy all across Europe and when someone recommended hiking in the Alps, the thought was kind of depressing. Gray skies everywhere. This snow field viewed from some castle wall in Switzerland seemed to exemplify the weather we expected to find higher up. But when we took a funicular railway up the mountain it rose above the clouds and we found ourselves in sunshine with a view across the cloud covered continent and Alpine peaks rising above it all.

And now back to adventures in mysterious eastern Europe…

 

 

Half A Century Ago

September 28th, 2018

 

On September 15, 1968, my friend Nelson Todd and I flew to London and began a three month journey by plane, bus, boat, train. Where those weren’t abailable we stuck out our thumbs. That was the beginning of 18 months of travel over a five year period that changed my life. In a time before the Internet, this kind of travel was very different than it is now. In this series, I’ll relate some of the adventures I had on three different trips. But it won’t be chronological, just vaguely geographical, in it’s organization of pictures and stories. Some places are easy for me to remember the time, because I only visited them once. Others were repeated more than once and I’ve never felt much need to sort them out. They’re all in “once upon a time” Random Access Memory…

I ditched the borrowed, ill-fitting suit after this picture. The sunburn took longer to subside.

************************

ON OUR WAY

Our flight over on Continental Airlines, one of the low-cost charters of the day, was notable primarily for the amount of dope being smoked and the smiles of the flight attendants…

A week in London was spent wandering around, trying to get used to the language-seriously-not as hard, perhaps, as Indian flavored English, but still a fair bit removed from the California bastardization of the Mother tongue. All in all, a pleasant time with a lot of walking, from Speaker’s corner to the Tower of London and various parks. I particularly like this shot of lunchtime in the Era Before Smart Phones.

Look! People sitting on the lawn talking to one another or just relaxing. You don’t see that everyday now…

And I believe this park is in Copenhagen, which would place it in 1970.

 

Danger lurks behind every tree, or, at least, the cops looking for it do. During a protest, probably over the Vietnam war.

********

Our vague plan was to hitch hike across Europe, following the suggestions in our rapidly dog-earing copy of the traveller’s bible of the day, Eric Frommer’s “Europe On Five Dollars A Day.” And yes, you could actually do that in those days, staying in hostels and the occasional B&B. Hitching a ride was easy food was cheap. Americans were still admired for our role in WW II, if beginning to be mistrusted over the war in SE Asia. The legacy of JFK was still a powerful token everywhere, even more so in Asia, as we were to find out, and benefit from, in the coming months.

Out journey went from England to Holland, then across Germany and Austria before entering the mysterious East-the Soviet dominated countries beyond. We were in Germany during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. News was hard to come by. We briefly considered trying to get there, but everything we heard about the situation was vague and in the end, we headed south to München to check out this thing called the Oktoberfest…

Passing Judgment

May 19th, 2014

I was invited today to the Spring Show of the Art Academy of San Francisco Photo Department, to participate as one of the photography judges.

ArtAcademyAlthough I am used to running my own gallery, which presumes a certain experience with judging another artist’s work-I don’t hang it on the walls unless I like it-that’s not quite the same as viewing an exhibit of work by about two dozen others and giving each piece a grade. It’s an interesting responsibility.

As a life-long photographer with 40 years of experience in the printing field and eight years of running a gallery, I have certainly been exposed to a wide variety of work that extends far beyond my own field of personal photography-not really any landscape or iPhoneography in this show-and with that and the usual exposure any citizen of modern society gets these days to photographs almost every waking moment of our lives, I can form an opinion of what I like or don’t like. And I can even expound on my reasons. In photography, more than any other visual art, I think there is an over-emphasis on technical issues, like what camera was used, was the picture “Photoshopped” what kind of printer, etc. So let me just say this about that: technical excellence was an almost uniform trait to these pictures. With only the fewest of exceptions, I saw almost nothing to carp about. That was such a relief. I could look at pictures and judge them just by their emotional and aesthetic appeal.

In a show like this, where students are working within boundaries, fine art, commercial, portraiture, I looked at the work and tried to see it without any overriding ideas. I looked first at the picture, then at the label that identified the particular style or field the photographer was representing. Did the picture grab me before I knew anything about it? If I saw it in a book, on a billboard, a poster, would I take a second look? If it did, I looked to see what field the photographer was working in and thought about the level of success she showed with a particular piece. Someone working in a class on lighting had to have  a picture that not only was worth looking at on its own, but showed an understanding of the uses of light to reveal and conceal. Natural light or artificial? Could I even tell and if I could, was that on purpose or did it reveal something about the photographer’s skills? I saw portraits that were mesmerizing, that were hard to pull away from, and I saw others that had all the appeal of a 19th century painting of some captain of industry with his hand in his vest; technically perfect, but…

I found favorites in all the categories exhibited, and some of my favorites were in advertising, portraiture and photo essays. Not the kind of work I do personally, but work of which I’ve always respected those who can master it. Being exposed to good photography and art of any kind always inspires me in my own pursuits. That such inspiration can come from student work attests to the seriousness of schools like the Art Academy and the skills it nurtures in talented students such as those whose work I enjoyed today. There was much more on display in the hall than just photography and I enjoyed strolling around the rest of the displays. I enjoyed it as much or more than I usually do in a formal gallery setting. Perhaps it was the breadth of the work or the energetic expression people new to any discipline can bring.   A lot of good art out there…

Cloudy Day........Ceramic sculpture by Josef Peters

Cloudy Day……..Ceramic sculpture by Josef Peters

Don’t forget the backing board!

February 13th, 2014

AcidContamination

Ugly little thing, isn’t it? The yellow stain on this print is the classic sign of acid contamination of a print on Hahnemühle Bamboo paper, one of my current favorites. But what caused it? the client called and said a print done barely a year before had turned yellowish even though she used an acid-free mat board. The print had been taped on all four edges to the back of the mat board. We could see that underneath the tape the paper appeared good, but the back of the print had a slight yellowing. On the frontside the outer edge had also been protected by the backside tape, but everything else was stained much worse than even the unprotected back.

I got out my pH pen and marked the mat board, just to show what the response should look like and sure enough, the color of the mark did not change. Even the tape appeared acid free. I also checked the wood frame as best I could, but I didn’t suspect it because the front borders, in contact with the print, were clean. That left just the backing board.

This was an inexpensive frame from Ikea, the kind a lot of people use. But the backing board appears to be cheap press board and it is definitely not made of a archival materials! Sometimes these boards are very dark and hard to test with a pH pen.

The moral of this short story is simple. If you want to preserve your prints for the longest time in a frame, all elements must be acid free. Use another piece of good mat board or other archival material behind the print. And DO NOT sandwhich cardboard in anywhere-“for stiffness.” It’s definitely not acid free. And although the tape my client used appeared to be OK, it’s better to use an adhesive product made for the job. Plenty of these are available at art supply stores.

If you can’t find good materials locally, try a specialty site like University Products for a wide range of storage and print mounting materials.

A recent “Call For Entries” generated 70 responses overnight. One applicant was H. N. I knew she was Iranian, but I assumed she lived either here in the states, or in Canada. In any case, I knew she wasn’t a local photographer and so even though I liked her work, I replied that the gallery could only show work the artist could bring and hang in person.

Hanna Noori

Her reply and and all our subsequent email and Facebook communications have served to remind me that those of us who do live here often forget, or really never think about, the difficulties someone like H., who actually resides in Iran, face daily in the pursuit of their art. She told me of the difficulties of getting her work shown outside of the country and the impossibility of showing it in Iran, due to the strict Islamic regime and the  limits it places on personal freedom, of women in particular. As a photographer as well as a painter, she isn’t able to show work in her own country and as a musician, she is not allowed to perform in public.

Iran is a complex country, one that I visited twice many years ago. Even in those very different times it was easy for me to see the struggle it had with promoting its own culture and identity and embracing the personal freedoms we take for granted in the West. Of course, it’s much worse now for reasons we are all familiar with.


SONY DSC

I changed my mind after her reply and decided to print a selection of pictures H. produced for a series she calls “Unreal Reality,” pictures drawn from her own dreams. Sometimes she is the model in the pictures, sometimes she shoots scenes from her own life and of the people around her, but there is always a sense in these pictures of a struggle to move forward, a longing to reveal what must be veiled. And fear, too, that element we all struggle with in those dreams that edge towards the nightmarish.

Untitled-11111

 

It was strange to exchange emails with H., real-time Facebook messages and in doing so, have all these issues brought into focus. This is a real person I am communicating with who is having these struggles. The problems of people like H. were no longer an abstract occurrence in a strange country far away. The personal connection had been made.

Sometimes she has no internet connection because the government there slows it down for obviously political reasons. She has to be careful with what she says, in the same way she has to be careful with her photography or music. Can’t draw the wrong kind of attention.

You’d think that maybe a woman like her, in that country would be too burdened by daily existence to be proactive in other ways. Two weeks into my email communications with H., after a few days of nothing from her, she got back in touch and apologized for being late in replying. She was helping a young girl from a nearby village who had been raped. Now that’s a trauma anywhere, but for this teenage girl, if her family found out, they would kill her. So H. took it upon herself to help R. find a surgeon to restore the family honor, make her presentable to a future husband and save her life.

Yes, in the real world, this happens in many, many countries and while we can sit back and denounce the barbarity of it, it still just happens to strangers far away, until that thin thread comes back to us and we are reminded that we’re all connected.

_MG_33304b

Oh, the gallery show? Well, from the series of dream images H. submitted, I looked through the other work offered and picked four other photographers whose pictures dealt with the the imagined, the surreal, fantasy, the abstract. Ways we use photography to probe what lies beneath the surface of pictures, to encourage us as viewers to interpret what we’re looking at, as well as understand what the artist is putting forth from their own perspective.

The gallery is now six years old and has hosted about 50 shows. It’s been a wonderful experience for me and a chance to help get the word out about some of the wonderful photographers and other artists I’ve been privileged print for. If you live nearby, you are always invited to stop by and see what’s on the walls. The reception for each show is a great time to come in and meet the artists.

I’m particularly pleased to show the work in our current show, “What Is The Meaning Of This?” And it all came about because a young woman living in a country known for repression, wouldn’t take no for an answer.

 

The Joy of Failure

May 22nd, 2012

The Great Annular Eclipse of 2012 came and went over the weekend. I traveled 250 miles to be on the center line of the path, to a beautiful place in the wilds of northern California, between Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta. My goal was not photography of the sun itself, because,

A.  I’m not into astrophotography, even though I have a small telescope and bought a solar filter for it.

B.  With the eclipse happening 20 degrees above the horizon, it would be too high to get a great sunset type of shot with silhouetted foreground objects.

C.  And although there were clouds around, none happened to be in front of the sun during the eclipse itself.

D.  My longest lens is only 200 mm, which is decent enough, but not great.

All that was ok, because my goal was to photograph the landscape under the effects of the diminished illumination. I’ve seen a partial eclipse, 75% coverage,  before and what I mainly remembered was the eerie quality of the light. I figured at 96%, it would be even more impressive.

We had several small telescopes to watch the actual eclipse with, and that was fun. I even grabbed a shot by pointing my iPhone at the lens during the peak of the event.

But as the light changed in the minutes leading up to full coverage, I knew that trying to capture the effect with a camera would be doomed to failure. Oh, it was easily visible, the strangeness of what I was seeing was a full immersion effect. Isolating any one portion of the experience changed it completely. The pictures I have simply look like they’re slightly underexposed. No magic, no mystery, none of the almost subconscious sense that this is not normal. Below the level of our conscious mind, we know what clear sunlight and the shadows it creates looks like at a given time of day and height of sun. Everything just looked off. Like maybe being on a planet farther from the sun than Earth.

The event, even at the four and a half minutes we enjoyed, was far too short to want to fool around squinting through a camera trying desperately to capture a mood rather than simply feel it.

I wandered away from my tripod and turned to take in the valley before me, trees casting shadows against bare patches between them, the surrounding snowy peaks with more massive Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta to the south and north. Rough basaltic rock all around, hardy sagebrush and Mountain Mahogany and a spring profusion of flowers and grasses, all casting weird, diminished shadows were topped by a gray-blue sky and drifts of hazy clouds that did not look like they had half an hour before.

And when the eclipse had diminished enough that the light seemed almost normal, we packed away the telescopes and cameras and for me, I knew this was a “you had to be there” moment.

********

In a long career of pointing a camera at the world, this was not the first time I’ve had that feeling. While I would have been pleased to produce a picture that imparted the what I saw/felt, I’m glad I didn’t spend anymore time looking through the restricted view of a camera at what was really an all-around and every direction experience.

Sometimes a camera is just a distraction.

 

Blowing off a few cobwebs

September 15th, 2011

OK, so it’s been almost a year since I last posted anything here. When was the last time you commented on a posting? Huh? I thought so.

Summer is typically a slow time here. I hope that’s because everybody is out shooting pictures or painting up a storm and by September everybody will return with lots of stuff to be printed. Right?

Work has come in intense flurries the last few weeks and the rest of the time I sit here, working on my own stuff, catching up on the latest Photoshop tips (I wasn’t born with my vast store of Photoshop knowledge, you know) and looking at whatever work is currently on the gallery walls. I’ve often thought, despite frustrations of self-employment and the vagaries of paychecks, that I’ve got it pretty lucky. I mean, I get to hang out in an art gallery all day! There is a beautiful courtyard right out my front door and a popular cafe. People stop in and if I’m not busy, we can chat as long as we want.

A lot of ruminating gets done. I’m reading a fascinating book, “The Information” by James Gleick. It’s about, well, information. What it is, how we’ve developed a need for it, how we have many times in history, been forced to develop a new concept to deal with new events. Did you know that when the first English dictionary was published in the 1600s it was not obvious that it should be in alphabetical order? Turns out that even the educated classes, who could read and write, didn’t necessarily know the order of the alphabet because, why would they need to? There weren’t any dictionaries yet!

Go back a little further in our short human history. Once we got beyond grunts (most of us) we starting speaking in words. When the first scribe got the idea to write something down, it was a pictogram, like a Chinese character or an Egyptian hieroglyph. Who first thought to break a sound down into component parts and assign them a squiggle? Too much information! Now we have to learn the alphabet! But it worked.

And to paraphrase a sentence I read in the book today, from a museum guide talking about a famous painting of George Washington, “This may not be what he looked like then, but it’s what he looks like now.”

You know it when you see it

Back to the subject of looking at pictures here on the gallery walls. Photography or painting, that quote from “The Information” certainly sums up a truth about what we do as artists. Nothing I photograph every looks like the subject I saw in front of me. It always lacks the depth, captures a pale simulacrum of the hues, compresses the dynamic range of light and doesn’t even smell like that rose (or that camel.) In my mind’s eye, when I think of a scene I’ve photographed, am I thinking of how I saw it, or how I photographed it, touched it up in Photoshop and printed it on the paper of my choice? If our art influences those who view it, where does our responsibility lie if we take a part in informing their understanding of the world? Does a highly detailed picture I slaved over on a hot computer for an hour to make printable in as accurate a fashion as I’m capable of do more to convey information than an interpretive shot in Hipstamatic on my iPhone that perhaps strikes a chord in someone else and stays with them longer and makes them think more?

I have no idea, other than to think questions like these probably don’t have answers. It’s just what I think about in between printing jobs.

Serious whimsey

November 23rd, 2010

Linda & Linda.jpg

©Rob Reiter

The show is up now. This last show of the year in The LightRoom Gallery features ten photographers showing maybe a couple hundred pictures from mostly iPhone (one lonely Droid) cameras and run through one or multiple photo apps on the phones. Is it a gimmick? Well, sure, as much as any category of pictures is a gimmick. Cell phones are kind of common nowadays. Most have at least basic cameras. Smart phones have better cameras and applications to play with the pictures. Since these apps are usually free or no more than a couple of bucks apiece, many people start loading up on them once they start playing with the first one.

It’s certainly an interesting phenomena from a cultural standpoint, whatever you think of the resulting pictures. Pushbutton “art” has long been possible with Adobe Photoshop® and other programs, with their art filters (make it a watercolor! Make it look like a pencil sketch!) and multitude of ways to distort any photograph. It’s hard to put my finger on just why I like doing stuff like this on my iPhone but have little interest working with pictures in a similar way in Photoshop. Part of it is the immediacy. No waiting until I’ve fired up the big iron, opened PS, downloaded the pictures. And some of it is the Buck Rogers factor. Not a wrist phone, but still way cool to have this at my fingertips-anywhere! Those are two of the initial motivations, anyway. But after playing with a few apps and printing a few pictures, there inevitably comes that moment of, “Hmmm, this isn’t too bad…” Then it’s usually a time of furious experimentation, maybe followed by settling down to a recognizable style and the exploration of how these effects can be used to express an aesthetic, as an augmentation of a feeling that goes beyond the pushbutton art phase.

No matter how serious I get with my iPhone pictures, the element of whimsey tags along, partly because of the spontaneous nature of this work. When I shot friend and fellow App Show photographer Linda Hanson in front of her self portrait oil painting, I didn’t have my “real” camera; I had my iPhone. The light was low and a resulting straight, unmanipulated picture I took was noisy, harsh, a record of a moment in its crudest form and not very interesting. Then I shot her again using the Hipstamatic app. Ran that picture through Toon Paint to get a cartoon outline. I then combined that with the original Hipastamatic “old Polaroid” picture through another app called Pro HDR, an app originally meant for HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography to combat contrasty light through multiple exposures. The result was a picture I like very much. All the technical problems of the unmanipulated shot went away after these conversions. The final picture can be blown up to at least 16″x16″ and still look good, because it’s not about fine detail anymore. The smooth outlines of the Toon Paint version are almost vector-like and the soft color from the Hipstamatic shot has no detail to speak of-it’s just a wash of color added to the cartoon outlines.

That’s part of the appeal of working with relatively low resolution phone pictures and these apps. When I use my Canon 5D for landscape photography, I’m all for sharp pictures, maximum detail, no blown out highlights or inky black shadows devoid of detail. For me, the iPhone is just the opposite. The pictures are softer, but just as interesting. It’s not about recording a scene accurately. Everything is more consciously run through my internal filters as a more obvious interpretation of the world. More painterly, if you will.

Sarah Kurtz, another exhibitor in the show, said she never considered herself to be a photographer, but the iPhone apps brought her into their world and she found herself hooked by the creative possibilities she found there.

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Sarah Kurtz

 

I don’t think I’m being especially prescient to say phone cameras will get better and straight or manipulated, the medium will become more  popular. The NY Times blog recently featured a story about war photojournalist Damon Winter pulling out his iPhone when on patrol with US forces in Afghanistan and using Hipstamatic to capture shots and moods when he felt it appropriate.

With any luck, I’ll upgrade my Canon next year to whatever the latest and greatest in that realm offers. I also plan on replacing my iPhone 3GS with what will probably be an iPhone 5. And I’m not sure which excites me more.

Random iPhone Hipstamatic Self-Portrait

"Things are more like they are now than they ever were before."
-Dwight D. Eisenhower

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