Monday, May 27, 2013

Speaking of Lenses

Image from "Fragments" Folio
People often ask me what I think of digital imaging as opposed to using film.  I think  there's little difference whether we are shooting film or pixels, both are lens based disciplines. It's true that there is a certain immediacy to the feedback that one gets from using digital but I am not, at this point, convinced that it is a real aid to the process of learning to see through a lens. In fact, I wonder if this technology doesn't somehow stifle the more explorative aspects of visualization. (Why should we attempt to imagine what the image might look like when we can see it "real time" as it were?) This process of visualization is, in my opinion, a very important component of photographic learning, one that should not be short-circuited.

This leads me to something that I have often talked about but never written of, the process of establishing a dialogue with a lens. You see, my belief, and my experience with lenses has led me to the conclusion that it is not only possible, it is essential to have dialogue with the lens in any imaging situation. After all, the perspectives offered when viewing through a lens are of paramount importance to the success of the image. But I often wonder if I come across as a bit of a Luddite when it comes to this subject as I usually do my best to discourage my students from using their zoom lenses as an ongoing practice and often recommend that they put these devices away in favor of prime lenses when they are working on their projects.

In fact, I am of the opinion that many people use zoom lenses as a means of distancing themselves from their subject.  This is often a practice that does not make for good pictures. In street photography for example, the best pictures are often made up close and personal. This often means connecting with the person and asking their permission to make the photograph. It's hard to do, particularly when one has the option of zooming in from across the street. Crossing the street means taking a risk and risks are scary even when they mean better photographs. Zooming in can also become a lazy way of exploring perspective and solving compositional problems. We all know that zooming in makes it easier to compose the picture, but the real challenge is to see the subject in a new way, to explore different points of view. In fact it often comes down to a simple truth, it is easy to zoom and hard for many of us to remember to bend our knees, let alone venture across the street.

Then there is the question of focus. In photography we explore, emphasize, soften and accent using focus. Focus tells the viewer where to look, forces point of interest and places importance. Students wrestle with the concepts of hyper focal distance, depth of field and circle of confusion but what happens to these hard gained concepts when we pick up a zoom lens? How does one calculate depth of field for a focal length of 184mm when focused at 7 meters and stopped down to f16? The fact of the matter is that in most cases it becomes a guessing game.

The real issue though is not technical. It is about, surprisingly enough, missed opportunity. Yes, I know that zoom lenses are supposed to help us to take advantage of picture making opportunities but bear with me here and I will explain what I mean.

First, let me say that many world class photographers subscribe to the use of prime lenses and often adhere to or prefer a particular focal length. People like Cartier-Bresson, Gibson, Sieff and many others are known for their preference for a particular prime focal length. Each has gone to great lengths to not only understand that lens, they have made it their own, an intrinsic part of their vision.

Second is a rather curious phenomenon that I discovered about shooting with a prime lens. A number of years ago I noticed that, not only could I tell how an image was going to look before I raised the camera to my eye. I found that in my mind, I could see in the focal length of the lens that I was carrying. What I saw matched my lens.

I also noticed that by using a single focal length, my use of that lens became more intuitive. I felt like I understood how that lens worked. My efforts at picture making became easier and I began to notice an interesting phenomenon. The camera at times, would disappear in my hand. I would no longer be conscious of the fact that I was using the camera in a tactile way, I simply made the pictures directly. There was no transition between seeing and lifting the camera up to my eye because I knew what I was about to see through the lens. In a way, I felt that I was in dialogue with the lens, that it was showing me how to see the world around me and to understand the potential of each opportunity.

Having learned all that I promptly discarded it when I went on a trip to Europe. Being lazy, I took two zoom lenses ranging from 28mm to 70mm and 100mm to 200mm. The first thing I noticed was that I didn't feel the kind of harmony that I had come to expect from my camera. I almost felt awkward at times as I made my pictures. The second was that I realized that in my haste to provide the range of focal lengths that I felt I would need, I had ignored the focal length that I normally used, the 85mm. It wasn't that my pictures were bad, they were fine but they just weren't me. They had a quality that I could only describe as "lensy" and did a poor job of conveying my feeling for the shot. I have some that I like but in all, they are not very satisfying. At that point I realized that the best of my pictures satisfy something in me that I can't quite describe and it is this sense of satisfaction that I seek. 

After that I changed to working with large format almost exclusively. It presented an entirely new set of perspectives and pre-visualization became more important than ever. Of course my methods changed but I now knew the value of dialogue with my lens. I also knew what I was looking for and what would give me that sense of satisfaction. I felt closer to my subjects, I saw details in a different way, upside down and flipped left to right. I'd carry a viewer but eventually I didn't need it. Did you know that one of the most difficult things for a large format photographer is knowing where to place the tripod?  I

t's a great life, being a photographer. There's always something to discover and life always looks incredible on the ground glass.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Fragments - A Visual Journal of Things That Might have Been

When I was a boy, I was fascinated by the prospect of flying.   My father had been a pilot and my boyhood dreams were filled with images of airplanes, airfields, clear blue skies, skies with towering cumulous, and of course the thrill of flying close to the ground.   Each night, when I went to bed, I would try to decide which dream I was going to have.   My favorite was the dream of flying a Spitfire around huge clouds, diving and swooping, standing the airplane on it’s tail as I climbed into the heavens.

These dreams dominated my early life and translated into my daily actions in every way I could think of.   I was going to be a pilot; nothing would stop me.   I joined the Air Cadets, built model airplanes, studied aircraft mechanics, meteorology, the history of aviation, and anything I could lay my hands on that furthered my knowledge.

I saved toward flying lessons and started gliding at a gliding club just outside of Winnipeg.   The sound of the air rushing across the wings was intoxicating and I felt curiously natural as I searched for thermals over ploughed fields.  I felt the aircraft as an extension of my body and felt the lift of our wings as we gained of altitude.

My instructor said that I was a natural and I believed him.  Over the years I logged many hours in the air, not as a pilot, as a passenger.   But I still hold a love of flying and airplanes and airfields.   I still dream of it occasionally too.

Fragments is an attempt to reach into the realm of the dream and extract something to be made tangible as a photograph.   Dreams for me are a great source of inspiration and offer endless opportunities to explore life and understand my roles in it.  Crossing the boundary between dream and consciousness is always fascinating and enlightening.  I often tell people that I do photography to find out what I think.  This project is an example of that process.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Thoughts on Portraiture

In a way I think that every photograph I have ever done can be thought of as a portrait.  Whether it's a landscape, a nude, a product shot or a conventional portrait it all seems to boil down to the same thing.  It's all about connection.

Over the years, I have done hundreds and hundreds of portraits.  Usually, at weddings or social events, the connection is brief, a quick word or even a gesture is sufficient to gain permission.  Often, I want the subject to feel special in some way, I’ll tell couples how great they look together, for example, or ask them about their wedding day.  That's often enough.  I love watching people transform themselves before the camera.   Actually, for the most part, I love people, especially when I am photographing them.

So what is a good portrait?   Frankly, I think that many photographers will say that any portrait that a client pays for is a good one but it is a serious question.  Many people will say that a good portrait reveals something of the sitter.  I myself, strive to create a picture which shows the integrity of the person, not necessarily in the classic sense but more on a personal level.

I remember a job where I was hired to do a portrait of a famous hockey player.  It was for an advertisement as I recall and I felt quite uneasy about it as I have no interest in hockey or sports of any kind for that matter.  What would we talk about?  His love of the game seemed the obvious choice but I knew I couldn’t go there.  I decided that the best place to connect with him was about family.  I only had a few minutes but as soon as we started I asked if he had any children and we launched into a brief discussion of fatherhood.   He loved his two children very deeply and confessed that he was concerned about all the travel he had to do during the season.  That was the moment. I made the exposure and he was gone.  I never saw him again but I felt that I had captured something real about him.   I don’t have that picture anymore and I wish I could find it.  Too many moves, too many years.

As you go through this blog you will find a set of pictures of a man named Maurice Leduc.  Maurice is a veteran from the Second World War. I arranged to photograph him in studio with a large format camera.  As you might imagine this camera is pretty big, it has to be on a tripod and you can only shoot one frame and then you have to change film, reset the shutter and so on.  It’s fairly cumbersome and so it's not that easy to carry on a conversation.   The war was a defining moment in his life and we talked about war  and about his experiences while I photographed.  We went through such a range of emotions during that sitting. He was very open and seemed flooded with memories.

I shot 16 frames and every one of them was powerful.  I could have used any one of them.  I include 3 of those pictures in this portfolio.

Many years ago, when I had my Beatty Street studio, I used to photograph young people who were starting their careers in modeling.  It was a great job, beautiful people, makeup artists, stylists, lots of music and excitement.  Not much money but it was a dream job never the less.

I had been doing it for about a year when the phone rang one day and a very distraught woman was on the other end of the line.  Her daughter was one of these young modeling hopefuls and had been killed in a car accident the previous week.  She wanted to buy every single picture I had of her daughter.   It was a very difficult conversation and it took her several minutes to compose herself to ask for what she wanted.  Her daughter was a very beautiful young woman, eighteen or nineteen years old, and I remembered her very well as we had done some pretty good work together.  I actually didn’t think she would make it in modeling and wondered at the time what would become of her.  Needless to say it was quite a shock.  Of course I gave her mother everything I had from that session and couldn’t bring myself to charge her for them.  She was so torn up.

That’s the other side of this profession.  People die and over the years I have photographed many people who died shortly thereafter.  Every once in a while, I will get a card in the mail from someone whose grandparent has passed away.  Sometimes the picture I did of them is the last one ever made.  Sometimes it is my picture that they use for the funeral and they take the time to write and thank me.
So you see, being a portrait photographer is a great thing for me.  We’ll never get rich from doing it but then again, I don’t often get the chance to have those kinds of conversations outside of the studio.  Using a big camera makes the session a joint effort, we work together to create a portrait that is about something, whether it is a memory from childhood or the love of one’s children or the principles that the person has tried to live by.

I feel privileged to do it, every time.