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.


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.

The folio concept puts some constraints on a presentation that at first I found frustrating but later I regarded as beneficial. If you custom design a folio enclosure and cut it out of paper stock yourself, one at a time, there is more flexibility in the folio approach but a lot more work. I searched online for a source of pre-cut folios and the only one I could turn up that fit my needs was a very elegant line by Dane Creek Folio Covers. I have to work within the limitations of Neil’s design, which is for 8.5″x11″ prints. The folio thickness means each one will comfortably hold up to maybe 15 prints, more if using lighter weight paper. His simple design includes a front window with a debossed decoration surrounding it.


I was OK with the print size, but wanted to cram in about 20 pages for the first set of pictures I wanted to produce in this format. I didn’t want to use thin paper, so I pared my selection down to 15 pictures, with a cover sheet and that worked out better than I though. Who ever wants to edit their masterpiece down? And what masterpiece doesn’t usually benefit by a little judicious trimming? Discipline has its benefits.

When I started in on producing something from my travel shots from long, long ago, I at first thought I could pick out a dozen of the strongest pieces and be happy with it. Quickly, as I got wrapped up in the process, I saw that while 12 pictures at a time would work fine, they wouldn’t encompass a complete survey of the material I had at hand. Easy enough to fix; multiple volumes would do the trick-three, as it turned out.

Every Picture Tells A Story became an absorbing project during a slow period at the studio this past summer. I produced two other unrelated folios and refined my concepts of thinking in the mode for a folio presentation of work. Talking to clients and showing them these samples reinforced the idea that many people would find this a worthwhile way to present their own work, one that served to fulfill a number of objectives. Folios make a great way to sell work as an option to larger, expensive framed pieces. They make great gifts or mementos. A folio can also be a portfolio, the distinction being that a portfolio is often created to present work for consideration to a gallery or as part of a job application or other commercial venture.

Although I was used to 13″x20″ and larger as my standard print size, the 6″x9″ image size I chose to print on letter sized sheets for my folios turned out to be an aesthetically pleasing “limitation.” For one thing, printing these old negatives, often Tri-X push-processed, mis-processed, shot with a funky (cheap) lens, made large prints a dubious choice. In a small size, they actually seem “sharp.” Fortunately, that wasn’t a problem with most of the work, but a few favorite shots fell into that category and I mind less presenting them printed 6″x9″ than I did when I tried something more appropriate for hanging on a wall, surrounded by work that was actually sharp!

The smaller image size also left room for some additional text on the print, something I would never do on a big print, other than my penciled signature, but something I felt appropriate, maybe necessary, on this production of selected images. Keeping in mind that folio prints also lend themselves to be selected out and framed, if desired, there was plenty of room to crop out the text with a mat window when framing a particular piece.


I also realized that as a collectible art form, there is something peculiarly satisfying about viewing a small collection of work. In the elegance of a folio presentation the prints take on a jewel-like quality. They can be enjoyed in a straightforward manner and there is a pristine simplicity of admiring an image with nothing added to its presentation. No questions of mat board color or whether or not the frame is right. And no glass in front with its glare or coloration. The print stands or falls on its own merits.

For this particular three volume folio, as its title announces, every picture has a story. So next time I’ll talk about what the ability to have a page or more of text included gives to a medium that at its base, is visual.

Every Picture Tells A Story

October 18th, 2010

It’s been said a picture is worth a thousand words. Is that a fair trade? Every picture? A picture doesn’t replace words and the images of the mind bring their own storyline. How often have you had the experience of seeing a photograph of a cherished event only to realize your memory of it was grander? Or maybe it was the other way around…

Anyway, words and pictures are not a zero-sum game and they live side by side quite nicely. Now, I hate having to come up with captions for my pictures. It’s three guys looking out of a train window-what more do you want me to say? But I love embellishing a photo with a story. Giving a background, filling in what the frame could never encompass, letting the viewer see the picture and know more than what the camera saw-this I enjoy doing. Fifty words will often do the trick.

Over a five year period, 1968-1973, I was fortunate to have spent 18 of those months on the road in foreign lands, living out of a backpack and cheap hotels. Overland to India was the goal; diversions were welcome. A new day, a new currency, a new language ringing in my ears was as sweet as the music blaring from the torn speakers hanging by a bolt to the ceiling of the bus that plied a dusty road into a new land. This was a time when photography beyond the snapshot was also new to me. I was in awe of the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. The world beyond my past life was fresh and vigorous and I wanted to share it with my homebound friends. No daily updates to a web page in 1968; months would go by before I would see a single frame, before I would even see if I got the shot in focus. Months before I could groan and realize I’d underexposed a killer picture, or my processing was sloppy and air bubbles dotted the film.

Shoot enough film. Travel enough places. Live with the pictures long enough and a few will shine through as maybe having interest beyond a fond recollection. I wanted to do a book at a time when that was a wild dream. Instead, I hung prints in my college library, gave slide shows to friends and family, got a magazine story or two out it and put it all away for decades. Every once in a while I pulled a favorite slide out and tried to get a decent print before it faded anymore (Agafchrome CT-18-I loved the color but its grainy goodness faded faster than a memory.) Color slides were contrasty and the Cibachrome printing I was doing taxed the stuff to the max. As the photography world turned digital, I started scanning that old film. Sometimes my assistants would have an idle moment and I would put them to work scanning. And spotting.

A decade of desultory progress finally produced good scans of most of my favorite shots from those trips. I tweaked the files, made proofs and revisited the dilemma of what to do with these pictures that meant so much to me. Now, with the passage of too close to half a century, I thought these pictures might actually have a wider relevance as a glimpse into the recent past. I realized how much the world has changed since the 60s and 70s and how the concept of taking off with a pack one’s back to explore the world has itself changed dramatically. No Lonely Planet guide books (there was Europe on $5 A Day), no cell phones, no GPS belt buckles; not even a reliable telephone system. I remember having to ferret out the local telephone exchange in India, make an appointment and come back hours later to get use of a phone, then wait 15 or 20 minutes until a connection could be made and pray the person on the other end was home (no answering machines, either.) I understand it’s a little different now…

I couldn’t get excited about yet another round of big prints, cutting mats, assembling frames, or swapping everything into existing frames and storing those prints somewhere so I could hang a show in the gallery for six weeks. The solution came in the concept of a folio of prints. A small, elegant enclosure of a limited number of prints, with the feasibility of a text accompaniment, in an affordable package-this idea had possibilities. My inspiration for this folio concept came from Brooks Jensen, publisher of Lenswork. Brooks himself may not have been the first photographer to slip a few prints into a paper cover and call it a folio, but he has refined the concept to a point I had not seen previously.

I’ll write more on this in the coming week. Stay tuned.



October 12th, 2010

Ever since I began to take photography seriously, over 40 years ago, I’ve lugged around important cameras, often on tripods, sometimes even view cameras. And I took important pictures. I strived for sharpness, the right exposure, careful framing and I wanted each picture to mean something. I didn’t take snapshots.

I couldn’t be happier with the digital cameras and printers I use now. I love the work I do with all of it and my prints are admired by those who see them. When I look back over these decades of striving in my photography, I regret just one thing. I didn’t take enough snapshots.

Gyalden Uthok.jpg

All these years spent with friends, and the pictures I have in my “albums” were mostly taken by others. As much as I love the serious side of photography, it’s the experience of friendships, the shared times with family and friends, that I most enjoy remembering. Yes, I love the landscape prints I have from the Grand Canyon, from the Sierra, from the Pacific coast with a splash of surf and the color of a sunset. But I miss having no more than the most occasional shot with a recognizable face. Fortunately, few of my friends were serious photographers and were therefore happy to pull out Instamatics or now point-and-shoots and happily snap away. And they share their prints and jpegs with me.

I began to loosen up with my shooting after switching to digital. With less need to conserve shots lest I run out of film, I can now snap away for casual fun and fill up my hard drive with twelve variations of a silly face or kitten pictures and do so guilt-free.


Oh, I still get serious on a regular basis. And I’m still amazed at the image quality available today. However, in the last year since I first bought one, I’ve taken far more pictures with my iPhone than my Canon 5D. The big camera goes with my on backpacking trips, but the iPhone is always with me. When you factor in the versatility and creativity of some of the phone apps available, it’s a liberating experience. When I shoot with the 5D, I pay attention to focus, sharpness, exposure-you know, the serious stuff. With the iPhone, maybe using the Hipstamatic app, or AutoStitch, Pro HDR or any of the other ten or so apps on my phone, pure resolution is not the highest item on the list. I feel as free to make 16×20 or larger prints with it as I do the big camera, because it’s the overall look I get that takes emotional importance. It’s hard to describe the effect. No one looks at a 16×20 from an iPhone and thinks it look sharp. But especially after running it through an app, the lack of sharpness just doesn’t matter as much. The bottom line here is that because I always have my iPhone with me, I take more snapshots. And the apps satisfy my urge to modify every damn picture I take. It’s the curse of having always done my own printing…I just can’t leave well enough alone.

Linda & Linda.jpg

I’ll bring this topic up again, as I am devoting our next gallery show at The LightRoom to phone photo app pictures and there will be a bunch pretty creative photographers involved. And now I want to go grab my iPhone and take some snapshots. Seriously.

State of the art

October 6th, 2010

Photographers and traditional artists needing reproductions-prints-of their work are living in a golden age of the craft. I’ll continue here talking as a photographer first, because that’s my background, and address facets of printing that appear to appeal more to artists later on. Oh, and while I specify photographers and other artists in our promotional material, it gets cumbersome to do so all the time and I’ll refer to photographers and artists. So no emails needed to protest that photographers are artists, too. OK?

Think back 400-600 years (or imagine it, if you’re too young to remember those dim days) when the average peasant may have seen a stained glass window in church or a bit of tile work and been wowed by the experience. Such brilliant color was not much a part of daily life around the hovel and the rare experience of it seemed rather glorious and special, assuming the daily grind of keeping food on the table and avoiding plague, pestilence and war didn’t inure you to such a vision. Gradually, the illuminated manuscript, a printed page, crude black and white renderings, or line art accompanying new-fangled typeface produced books and other advancing forms of reproduction brought us at least the semblance of art, existing outside of the church and the hands of collectors who could commission such original pieces.

View from the Window at Le Gras, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.jpg

The early 1800s saw the invention of photography as well as lithography and before long the reproduction of images, at least in black and white, took off. Well, I don’t intend to recapitulate the entire history of printing, but suffice it to say that these days it’s possible for the average person to do a pretty darn good job of printing pictures in black and white and in color that are of a quality that would knock the Argyles off the feet of all those early experimenters.

Barely a decade to go, most photographs were printed in the darkroom. Although I have been involved in digital imaging since 1985 (remember the Amiga?) and high end inkjet printing since the late 1900s, it wasn’t until Epson introduced their x600 line of pigment printers that the shift really accelerated at a professional level. By 2005, digital cameras of a relatively affordable price were equalling 35mm film quality. Here at The LightRoom, I could graph the switch just by looking at the Income columns of my bookkeeping software. Our Ilfochrome lab was dying and although by the end of 2005 it still accounted for 20% of the income, there wasn’t enough throughput for the chemistry in the processing machine to stay fresh and we closed it down, shortly before moving into our current space and going 100% digital. Film scanning continued to be popular, but a similar graph could be made of the decline of that service. Curiously enough, I’ve lately seen an upswing in scanning, not necessarily for immediate printing, but a lot of photographers seem to be taking their best film work and archiving high resolution scans for future use.

Photographers can be a crusty bunch of reprobates and certainly there was resistance to the move to pixels, but overall, I’d say most (not all) of my customers and acquaintances have made the transition and are happier for it, after seeing what good gear and printing can do. Of course, if you look at all the photographs taken, printed or put on the web, it’s easy to find mounds of tripe and garish stuff that might have impressed earlier practitioners of the art, but not in a good way. At the same time, though, I’ve seen a lot of incredibly talented photographer’s web sites, inspirational and daunting at the same time.

The same timeline of innovation and progress can also be seen for artists, those wanting reproductions of existing pieces and for those wanting to use a print for the furtherance of their work-to continue painting on or as an element in a collage.

With pigment inkjet printing we have a choice in materials that is exciting to embrace. While artists have always been appreciative of the variety of media open to sketching, painting, printing on, photographers for the last few generations have been conditioned to think of glossy and matte as the only available choices, with the super glossy look of Ilfochrome or papers with a slight luster as about the extent of the variations. With the exception of a super glossy material suitable for pigment inks, there certainly exists now a wider range of surfaces-glossy, luster, matte, textured, natural white, bright white-than we’ve seen since the beginning of printing from film, when photographers coated their own art papers with emulsions, much as have those working with platinum and palladium continue to do. Add metallic surfaces, Japanese rice paper, fabric or wallpaper, among a few, and it’s easy to become dazed ad confused by it all. Of course, no one has to contemplate such a list for every single print, but a little experimentation can be enlightening. The world of printing requires something to print on and that has an impact of the emotional response to the printed image. Approach it with a little forethought and it’s a liberating experience.

All of this brings us to an interesting place. Today’s equipment makes possible a level of printing that produces a quality, and by that I mean the ability to render with fidelity of detail, color accuracy and dynamic range, the original film or digital file, than we have ever had before. As owner of a professional printing studio, my goal has always been to get the best print possible by whatever means, at a price affordable to the widest audience. I think pigment inkjet printing is now that method.

It’s actually not too hard today to get prints off a home printer, from a digital camera, that rival the best a custom lab could do in the darkroom days, especially from color film. But that quality of printing-high end darkroom quality-has been superseded by what can be produced at a professional level from digital cameras and printing and a thorough knowledge of imaging programs like Adobe Photoshop.

You can buy the equipment to make good prints today with not much more than the push of a button, for about as much money as it would have cost you to install a decent color darkroom in your basement 15 years ago. But if you want to make great prints with these tools, you must jump in and master this art, just as always, or employ the services of a studio like The LightRoom to take your work to that level.

Another way to look at it is that we are less limited by our equipment today. Cameras and printers give us capabilities only dreamed just a few years ago, let alone to the generations of photographers in whose footsteps we follow. Now it falls more on our shoulders as artists, to have a vision worthy of the great tools at our disposal.

Random iPhone Hipstamatic Self-Portrait

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

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