My Kingdom for a Voice

You shouldn’t read this article. There will be no happy endings or satisfactory resolution. It poses problems without solution, and offers you no advice whatsoever. Among the wildfire of online articles that claim to guide you safely through artistic turmoil soothed and unscathed, I am interested only in fanning the flames. The problem, you see, is that I have no voice. My photography is completely bereft of a unique style, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

This might not seem like a terrible thing; just keep shooting until I figure it out, right? At least that’s what every photography blog on the internet tells me to do. “Go out there and shoot everyday, kiddo. You’ll find your style like I found mine. Eventually.” Well, I’m tired of waiting for eventually to come. Not having a vision for my photography feels like writing a book with nothing to say. Without a point, I won’t even get started. I crave direction and with a whole store full of cameras at my disposal it’s hard not to get distracted.

 

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Pictured above: girl distracted

 

In my writing I never have to think much about my voice. I realized early on that any narrative I wrote always came out with a lighthearted and optimistic tone, even when everyone died in the end. The thought that I could choose and shape my voice—or style—over time was not something that occurred to me. As I’ve traveled further down the photography rabbit hole, however, I’ve found that it isn’t quite that simple. With many different looks and styles available to me, I am able to make a choice. I usually like being able to choose (and I’m a rather choosy person) but having this much freedom is almost stifling.

Luckily though, there are as many potential mentors for me at Blue Moon as there are cameras to learn. I’ve started looking more and more at my coworkers’ work. Of everyone at the store, I probably most discuss my search for style with Jake. As many of you know, Jake recently delivered an entire lecture on his work, process, and style, which you can read here. He told me one day he was going to teach me large format and while my first thought was “great, another film type to distract me from my self-discovery”, it is a format I have ended up really enjoying. After a few months of shooting 4×5 though, most of the work I’m producing now looks suspiciously like Jake’s. Oops.

 

Jake Shivery

The quintessential Jake Shivery.

 

Now, Jake has style. There’s a mood his photographs capture that is hard to overlook or recreate. He occasionally dismisses this as “taking the same photograph over and over” but that isn’t the case. While I (unconsciously) mimic some key aspects of his portraiture work, my photographs will likely never be mistaken for a Jake Shivery; there’s a mysterious element in his work that I can’t quite capture. The one photograph of mine that comes the closest to his is probably my favorite piece of my own work so far, which is telling. Clearly I like Jake’s style, but it’s Jake’s, not mine.

 

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4×5 Self Portrait, from the Not Quite Shivery Series

 

Naturally, both respect and the desire to be an original motivate me to stay away from straight mimesis of a mentor’s work. But there’s something else that pulls me away from enrolling completely in the Jake Shivery school of photography: I want to do more than large format portraiture. It’s important that someone does it, and does it well, but I have too many interests pulling me in different directions. I’d never have the self-discipline it takes to focus on one camera, one film type, and one subject area.

Picking one thing and sticking with it has never been my forte. By the time I entered high school I’d been playing the clarinet for six years, but I was bored. I decided that what I really wanted to do was play the oboe. My director warned me that switching instruments could be detrimental to my clarinet skills, but I was determined. Soon, I added the alto sax, as well. I even added the baritone for one marching season. I had a great time with them all, but by senior year I’d lost control of the finely tuned muscles that helped make me proficient on the clarinet; I left high school a weaker clarinetist than I was when I started middle school. There go my chances of being a concert clarinetist. If I’m honest with myself, I can image something similar happening with my photography.

 

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Learning large format while shooting my AE1

 

I know I get distracted. I know that, after a year or two or maybe even six, I’m going to want to do something different. If I focus on portraits now, I’m certain that in a few years I’ll never want to take another portrait again. And what then? Will I put all this effort into building my image and my style just to eventually and inevitably have to start all over again when I get bored?

Style takes discipline. And it’s my fear that, at the end of the day, style might be a limitation. Even the most loose and carefree of photography blogs on style, the ones that tell you to go forth and shoot anything and everything, do warn you that eventually you’ll have to choose. One day you’ll have to commit to a camera, a film type, a subject, a composition, something, or you’ll never be taken seriously as a photographer. They all sound just like my high school band director.

But there might be another way. One day at the scanner, I heard Jake walk up behind me. “Are you scanning Faulkner’s work?” he asked. I was. “You want a lesson about style, you get it from Faulkner. It doesn’t matter what camera he touches, his photographs always look like his.”

That’s certainly true. In the same way that I can spot Jake’s handiwork from several feet away, I can recognize almost anything by Faulkner with no more than a passing glance. His photographs can be so varied—taken with a wide range of cameras, film types, film sizes, and subject matter—and yet all recognizably similar, like the same refrain played in a different key. Faulkner’s approach to style is vastly different from Jake’s methodical process, and yet they are both easily recognizable. I thought Faulkner might have some insight on style that would help me shed light on my own, and so I asked him about it.

 

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Self portrait by Faulkner Short

 

“Hey Faulkner,” I said one Saturday during whiskey basketball, “what’s your photographic voice?”

“Pee-wee Herman,” he said.

“I was not expecting that.” I wasn’t.

“I think humor is very important,” he continued. “I always like it when a photograph makes me laugh. Balance between form and content is important, but there also needs to be some element that grabs you—and humor is a good one.”

I asked him if he considers himself to have a style.

“I do… but I don’t know how to explain it to you.”

And neither do I. The adaptability of Faulkner’s style impresses me: it’s certainly less limiting than what I’d been doing, but more difficult to pin down. While I know one of his photographs when I see it, I’d be hard pressed to actually describe his style. Perhaps that underlying desire to capture the moments that make him laugh is what gives his photographs a consistent look. For him, style is less about limiting your scope and more about concentrating on a consistent thought.

 

Tallulah by Faulkner Short

Tallulah by Faulkner Short

 

When I first started thinking seriously about my style, I did it with a certain air of annoyance. Why even have a style? After all, it doesn’t necessarily seem to benefit me as an artist; the individual photographs I take are not better because they resemble other photographs I’ve already taken. From the outside looking in on the art world, style seems like a categorical tool that is helpful for those people who are not the artist. Jake takes large format portraits. Vivian Maier did street photography. That one wedding photographer you’re thinking about booking does macro detail shots, while the other one takes a lot of contrast out of her photographs in post-processing. If you want to be known for your photography, you need to make it easy for people, and that means having a style.

While the creative side of me wants to rebel against this whole idea and the underlying business aspect of art, I do understand why it has to be this way. If I want to make any kind of impact on the photography world I, too, will need to limit or concentrate my efforts in some way to make my work recognizable. And though this realization doesn’t quite help me find my style, it does help to know there’s more than one way to achieve consistency in photography. So next I suppose I’ll go out, and keep shooting until I figure it all out, or I’ll say to hell with it and just shoot what I want. If it ends up looking consistent, great. If not, well, I never really wanted to be a concert clarinetist anyway.

Interviewing Clarke Galusha

Interview with Clarke Galusha

Date: 9/3/2013

Where: Saraveza Bottle Shop and Pasty Tavern on N Killingsworth, Portland OR.

ST: So, I wanted to start at the beginning and ask those same questions that are always asked…have you always been interested in photography? Or were there other forms of art that you were interested in?

CG: Yes, I had an interest in photography at an early age. My brother is, or was, 6 years older. He was always an inspiration and an idol for me. He was a prolific painter and won all kinds of awards in high school and went on to study art in college.

He was the first person to put a camera in my hands. He saw in high school that I was struggling with other art forms, so he put a camera in my hand, probably right after high school.

I was working at Wolf Camera. It was a one hour lab. I was able to process all my 35mm film there and took it from there and eventually ended up going to art school, studying photography.

ST: Where did you attend art school?

CG: Louisiana Tech. How it happened was – I was living with this girl in Tulsa, OK, where I grew up. She moved to Louisiana to go to school and I followed her. I found out that Louisiana Tech had a BFA in photography, so I thought I might as well go for that. It turned out to be really awesome.

ST: So you were shooting with a 35mm camera?

CG: Yes. It was my father’s Nikon F that he gave my brother, and my brother gave me. There is some history to that camera.

So while I was at Tech, I was a somewhat older student and it wasn’t really an art school. There was myself and another guy who were really into the craft of photography. We had our own darkroom, were very close with the professors, and got keys to the building. But the biggest perk was being referred for a job with a local photographer, who lived in Monroe, about a half hour away.

I became an assistant for Deborah Luster for two years, while she was working on her project called “One Big Self, Prisoners of Louisiana.” She made portraits and printed them on painted aluminum, so they looked like tintypes. So most of my job was creating the plates.

ST: What was it like to work with Deborah Luster?

CG: Seeing her multi-year dedication to her one project of photographing the prisoners and how much involvement went into it was fascinating. She also gave thousands of prints back to the prisoners. Some of those prisoners hadn’t had pictures of themselves for many years, and she was able to give those to the prisoners. Then they could send them to their family, which had a big impact for those families. But just being involved with a working photographer, it’s really nice to see how much effort, love, and dedication it takes to pull off a project. I feel like I owe a lot to her.

A wet plate portrait of Clarke and Christie by Deborah Luster.

A wet plate portrait of Clarke and Christie made by Deborah Luster.

 

 

When we were leaving Louisiana, Deb was finishing her prisoners project and starting to work on her next project. She had just learned the wet plate process, and I was about to get married. Debbie shot our wedding invitation photo as an ambrotype. At the time I had no idea what the process was all about. I think that may have planted the seed of making Tintypes.

ST: What were you working on personally?

Well, I met Christie, who is now my wife. I lived in a little rental home in the “ghetto,” and she would walk around with me. And we got invited to neighbors’ family reunions, BBQs and things like that. I walked by all the time, and back and forth to school. My neighbors and I got to know each other. I didn’t try to take their photographs the first day we’d meet. I was eventually able to get some really intimate pictures. I also spent a lot of time shooting Christie. My senior show was shots of her in large format.

 

 

 

 

ST: After graduation- how did you end up coming to Oregon?

CG: In 2003 I graduated, got married, my brother hanged himself, and we moved to Oregon. We wanted to get out of the south, both of us did. I had a best friend up here, and my brother had lived here and in Olympia. So I came up here and had a friend who was working for the Willamette Week and did some work with him. But, really I just didn’t pursue anything artistically for years while I ran away from dealing with my brother’s suicide and not processing it. I really didn’t do much photographically from 2003-2008.

Looking back, I was really successful photographing my neighbors, and family reunions, and senior portraits and thought I had life figured out. I was 27 or something. And having my brother die, and moving to a new city, where every other person is an amazing artist. You know, being overwhelmed. It was weird to have this 7 or 8 year hiatus and then just come back to it and try to find myself- it has been an experience.

ST: Nothing seems forced about anything that you do, or have done. It’s nice and refreshing.

CG: Thank you. I do struggle with that. I think if I were to push harder or have more deadlines…well maybe it’s a double edged sword because having the deadline of the Newspace show really got me to make this body of work. When I don’t have a deadline I tend to get lazy.

In 2009, I kind of started picking up photography a little more. When Christie got pregnant with Jasper, I really started shooting more. I started taking classes at Newspace. That first year that I was a member of Newspace – where they have an annual juried show – I entered the show with ten of the images I had taken of my rural neighbors in Louisiana and ended up winning the big prize – a solo show.

Clarke's earlier work from Louisiana.

Clarke’s early work from Louisiana.

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ST: How did you decide on your subject matter for the show?

CG: Well, so, I won, and I was overwhelmed. I started taking classes at Newspace: I took a lighting class, I took a Photoshop class and some others, and started shooting again.

The original project that I had in mind for the show was to document my elderly neighbors in NE Portland. I had a horrible time getting into these peoples’ houses. They weren’t as open and friendly as the Southern folks.

I actually got a Hasselblad 500 CM from Jake at Blue Moon and was very down to once again go out and document my neighbors. I wanted to get in their houses because a lot of their houses were stuck in the late 1960s, early 70s. But I had a lot of trouble doing that, so I tried to do a landscape project. But there were no people in it, so it didn’t really do anything for me.

I was at the end of my rope and didn’t know what I was going to do for the show that was due in three months. I had to have my show to Newspace by the end of October 2012. I had to fill up 120 feet of wall space with work. So I decided to look up tintypes in Portland and found Ray Bidegain and there was this instant connection. I took a tintype workshop with him at the end of August 2012, and he agreed to be my mentor.

ST: How did your subject matter come about or develop? Why kids?

CG: I think I wanted to photograph kids because Jasper was just born, and I had all things children on my mind. I’m the youngest of 17 cousins, and all of my neighbors growing up were older. I never experienced kids so much. I was overwhelmed by how brilliant and amazing they are when they are so small. Jasper was going to this awesome playschool, and I just wanted to make portraits of all of the kids there. So that is where I started recruiting kid models. I took tintypes of Jasper and his friends and some of the other playschool kids. It turned out that Chris Bennett’s kid was starting there, so I photographed his son. It just kind of snowballed.

ST: Your tintypes are very unique, and I’ve never seen anything quite like them. So, I wanted to talk about your technique with the strobe lights. Can you talk about that?

CG: Ray Bidegain was a huge help with this. When I first told him that I wanted to shoot kids, he said that would be really rough, that I would have to shoot older kids or get strobes. The day that I learned how to create tintypes from him, my wife and son Jasper came and modeled. He was two-and-a-half at the time, and we did three tintypes, and you couldn’t even make out that he was a kid. He was a blur. So I knew I had to get some strobes.

Clarke's son Jasper, when he decided he must use strobes when photographing children.

Clarke’s son Jasper, without strobe light.

Portland has an awesome wet plate family, and Ray is part of that, so he introduced me to a couple of other guys. A few of them were using strobes, so I was able to pick their brains. I started by shooting Jasper at home. Something about it worked. The second-hand tripod that I got could only be lowered to a certain height, so I had to be shooting down at the kids somewhat. Something about them looking up worked, too. I also didn’t direct any of the kids to smile or do anything. I just had them sit there and be themselves.

I had two weekends where I was able to shoot in Ray’s backyard. His younger daughter, Emogene, recruited the neighbors, their friends, and her friends. She was awesome. I had two weekends with five or six appointments each day, so that was 12 kids. And I think those were some of the best shots I’d made. Ray sometimes talked with his neighbors or checked out the tintypes but gave me full access to his darkroom, and I had my strobes set up and my backdrop in his backyard. It was a grueling, ether-induced day. I think I shot almost 250 tintypes in six weeks, just to get the 42 for the show.

After I had said, “I don’t need any more kids,” I just kept getting emails and requests from parents. So I started Tintype Portland.

ST: That’s pretty awesome.

CG: I had 14 months to come up with this show, and here I was in August, just coming onto this new process. But that whole year was awesome. I’m really glad I had that year because I went through so many stages of growth and reconnected with myself again.

ST: That’s understandable. It was probably built up from the years that you were dormant, right?

CG: Yes. I had just gone to Italy, and I won a solo show, and I was having a son. It was a re-birthing.

I learned at the end of August how to make tintypes, shot 59 kids in six weeks, and put up 42 tintypes.

Clarke Galusha's solo show at Newspace.

Clarke Galusha’s solo show at Newspace.

ST: I think it’s in their eyes; they really glow.

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CG: I mean, there is something about the catch lights of the reflectors in their eyes. But it’s more than that–it’s just kids. The process ages everybody, but when you have a four-year-old on a tintype, looking straight into the lens, and it’s super sharp, it’s intense.

ST: Your strobe setup really allows you to shoot any time of day and virtually anywhere.

CG: It does; it is nice. I love the immediate satisfaction thing. It’s kind of like digital, in that you are getting something right away. But it definitely is not digital.

I don’t have a darkroom, well, a traditional darkroom, or running water or a drain, but you are able to complete the process that way. And you can do it on location because of that.

ST: Do you have any plans to explore other subject matters in the future?

CG: I think I will be sticking with photographing kids for my business.

So, personal projects that I really want to do–I have always really wanted to shoot some of my clients at Cascadia. There is a lot of red tape involved in that because they have mental health diagnoses, and I work there or have worked there. So, there are their rights and what you can actually do with those photos. In the back of my mind, I think it was part of me wanting to go back to working there.

ST: You are offering workshops on making tintypes now; is this correct?

CG: Yes, it is on my website. I teach one or two people at a time to make tintypes, which is how I learned, by going to Ray’s house for six or seven hours. I think it’s really fun. I’ve been doing it for a little over one year, and I am still amazed, obsessed and surprised by it all. It is still really magical. I’ve done three sessions so far independently. Ray and I also taught a class at Reed College which was over two evenings. I love sharing the process with other people.

Did we cover everything?

ST: We did, but I just like hearing you talk. Thank you for sharing everything.

How to Date your Hasselblad (but not in THAT way)

Ever thought it would be neat to know the year your Hasselblad was born?  Or better yet, its birthday?  Turns out that finding that information is much easier than you might expect.

Hasselblad bodies and most film backs have serial numbers that begin with two letters followed by a string of numbers.  To find the serial number for both, simply remove the back from the body and you’ll see the serial numbers on the inner faces of each piece of equipment.

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Serial number locations on a Hasselblad back (left) and body (right).

The cool thing about these numbers is that Victor Hasselblad implemented a secret code (less secret now than it was) that identified the year a camera was made.  Here’s the code: VHPICTURES.  (Get it?  VH for Victor Hasselblad.)  Each letter in this ten digit code represents a number between zero and nine.

V = 1
H = 2
P = 3
I = 4
C = 5
T = 6
U = 7
R = 8
E = 9
S = 0

Now all you have to do is take the two letters in your serial number and translate them into numbers.  If the number is greater than 50, add the prefix 19 to it and if the number is less than 50 add the prefix 20.  For example, in the image above, the camera body (right) has a serial number of UV114133.  We see from the code that U = 7 and V = 1.  Seventy-one is greater than 50, so we add a “19” to the front end and voila! This camera was made in 1971. Let’s try another: take a look at the magazine on the left, with a serial number starting in RR. This translates to 88, making this magazine’s vintage in 1988.  Simple, no?

Order your Hasselblad Party Hat today

Get your party hats on; it’s birthday time.

 

You can do a similar process with the Zeiss lenses that mount on your Hasselblad.  If you remove the lens from the body and look inside the back mount on the rear baffling near the rear optic you should see a small three or four digit code stamped in red ink.

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It should look something like this.

The last two digits of this code represent the month of manufacture where 01 = January, 02 = February and so on.  Take the remaining one or two digits at the beginning of the code and add those on to 1957 and you have the year the lens was made. For example, the code above is 805. The fifth month of the year is May, and 8 + 1957 = 1965. Therefore, this lens was made in May of 1965. If the code was 1805, it would indicate a lens manufactured in May of 1975.

This process works for pre-1980 Zeiss lenses.  If you have a post-1980 lens you will see a code comprised of two digits and a letter.  Reverse the two digits and you have the year, where the letter once again signifies the month (A = January, B = February, etc).  So a lens with the code D48 would have been made in April of 1984.

If you really must know which day of the month your lenses came into the world you can contact Zeiss directly and they should be able to tell you via the lens’ serial number. That way you’ll be sure to never miss another birthday.

 

Update: We’ve received some great questions about Hasselblad dating on our Facebook Page. One Hasselblad lens owner was looking at a serial number similar to D89B. So what’s with the extra ‘B’ at the end? After 1980, when Zeiss switched over to the two numbers and single letter system, they included on some later model lenses an extra A or B after the two numbers. It’s not yet be released (to our knowledge) what these letters stand for, and the dating system still works using the first letter and following numbers. For now, the purpose for the extra A and B remains a mystery.

Jake’s speech at the Portland Art Museum – The Decisive Morning

What follows is the unabridged text (and slides) from Jake’s speech at the Portland Art Museum on July 17, 2013.

 

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Thanks to the Photo Council for having me. And by “having me”, I mean “bullying me into this”. Thanks to all of you for breaking up your day to come down for a bit. I will do my best to make it worth your while.

And thanks to Pro Photo Supply for sponsoring these events. You guys are great. I hope that at some point, my little company will be in a position to mirror some of your good efforts.

Let’s just move right onto the robots, shall we?

MT01_10 Mr. J. and Mr. J. Wenderoth, Linton, 2009 No1

The first point I’d like to address is: “Who is in control of the portrait: the photographer or the subject?” You can’t have a portrait without both, after all.

Here’s an excellent example. This is my friend John and his father. John is an artist of the first order himself, and he is used to knowing exactly what he wants. Nothing is different here – he knows exactly what he wants out of his portrait. So his father’s coming into town, and he’s excited about the shop space that he’s subletting to work on his current obsession: the renovation of Airstream trailers. In addition, John is a builder and a craftsman, with a sense of humour to boot, and he’s recently constructed himself a robot costume, which he would like to incorporate into the portrait. He’s been waiting for the stars to align just so before proceeding.

So John asks me to come down and make a portrait, about which I’m very excited. That’s a lot of great elements to work with. I go down to set up; I’ve been in the shop before but never really looked at the light, and I’m not sure what we have to work with. I get the camera the way I want it, and start placing the subjects. That’s John’s grandfather’s tool chest that he’s sitting on, another subtle and important detail. Father and son, dissected Airstream, robot costume, tool chest – layers on layers – John’s life in fragments. A code.

John and I had been planning this shoot for several weeks before the actual event, anticipating his father’s arrival. John described his idea about using the robot suit, about which I showed some skepticism regarding his father’s willingness. John told me not to worry.

As you might expect, John’s dad was more than a little skeptical once the idea was finally presented. Everything else was largely ready, and John produced the bottom half of the robot costume. His father looked at it with bemusement. John looked at his father with impatience.

John’s dad: “What do you want me to do with these?”

John: “Dad, we spoke about this at length. Now go put the robot pants on.”

And, being the good sport that he is, John’s dad put them on; John himself climbed into substantially less of the robot costume, set himself down on his grandfather’s tool chest, and they took mild direction from me.

It’s layer on layer on layer of one man’s psyche representing itself. It’s a portrait in the truest sense, since it’s John’s own direction. Levels of generations, levels of strength, levels of craft. Levels of information being passed down and passed on. It always pleases me to help my friends create their own self representations, and this is one of my favorites.

And so, I get my shot. It’s more or less my classic “jake portrait” – family in the front, family in the back, some details for interest. I’m proud of it, but ultimately, I was just showing up with the camera.

John and his dad took some subtle coaching from me, and they held still while I did my thing, but he knew what he wanted.

Whose portrait is it? Well, it defies the question, and makes for a good answer – collaboration. This is what makes for a good portrait – work with really good people who you love, try your best to make them look good while they’re trying their best to help you make a good photograph, and you have actual, legitimate collaboration.

There were a couple other things happening in my evolution as a photographer when I made this portrait. Notably, I had decided that I wanted to have a smaller camera with me, where I could shoot more than six frames of film, and where I could have faster results and where I could work in color. So I brought along my trusty old Hasselblad, and a second tripod, and I set it up next to the Deardorff, and tried my best to work with it.

The next day, I had the work processed and proofs to look at and was excited at the relatively “instant” gratification of being able to see results the following day. And it looks great – Zeiss optics, square and compact, lovely, in color and everything – and they all just left me all the more anxious to see the real film. After getting used to dealing with 8×10 negatives, it’s really hard to look at anything else.

MT02_12 Mr. J. and Mr. J. Wenderoth, Linton, 2009 No3

Let’s speak a bit about the limitations of the large format system – principally, the number of frames you can expect to make during a given shoot.

I try really hard to get it within just a couple of shots. I’ve recently been trying to limit myself to two or four per shoot. One reason is expense, obviously – it’s five bucks every time you pull the shutter.

Another reason is advice from one of my old photo mentors – the amateur photographer will show you everything that they shot – the pro will show you “the” photograph – the finished product. So I’m mindful of this, and when I’m prepping for a show, there’s always some teeth gnashing about which one is “the” one. For today, clearly, I’m going to break that rule a bit.

MT03_13 Mr. J. and Mr. J. Wenderoth, Linton, 2009 No4

For today, I’m going to show you a couple of shots with their out-takes, because it’s relevant to the subject of editing. Which is a constant struggle.

I work with a couple of editors, but ultimately, I like to make sure that I’m making the final call on which photo actually reaches the wall.

And here, it was hard. I mean, I had five of these robot series and I liked every one of them. But you have to pick just one.

Later, I’ll put some of the “b-sides” up on Flickr and see how the world responds, but not until after I’ve made my final decision. Not until I’ve actually hung “the one” up on a wall somewhere. The results are always interesting. Not surprisingly, different people like different things. But this kind of public election after the show does have an impact on how I shoot.

MT04_14 Mr. J. and Mr. J. Wenderoth, Linton, 2009 No5

On the note of “B-sides”, I also wanted to show you the more traditional portrait work of these two men. I was a bit overwhelmed with how good these elements were, and the robot suit and the layers on layers was really exciting, but I also wanted a bit of work of just the two dudes. Sometimes, shoots will go like this, and there will be many which are hard to choose from.

MT05_15 Mr. J. and Mr. J. Wenderoth, Linton, 2009 No6

At this point, John’s gotten what he wants. He has his family portrait with his father in the robot pants. Now he’s free to chill out in the nice light.

John’s father looks like he wants to kill me. He doesn’t. He made us sandwiches.

And now onto the clown and the mermaid…

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This is as close as I’m liable to come to a “one hit wonder” – this thing gets more views on the internet than everything else of mine combined, by a considerable degree.

And so… I’m sick of it. I don’t think it’s representative of the body of work so much, even though it does have that in focus out of focus action. It’s just so… popular. Granted, if nobody paid any attention, I’d be out there saying “hey – Clown! Mermaid! What do you people want?”

This ties in with John’s robot picture, because it’s more of a collaboration. Similarly, I didn’t ask my friends Leif and Claudie to dress up in this drag, and that’s an important point. They were in the process of making one of Leif’s short films, and I happened to see some of the still work, and barged my way in so that I could exploit a bit of their set design. What I mean is that I’m trying to capture some of the creativity on which they’ve worked so hard. This is a successful portrait not because it’s weird and idiosyncratic, not because it’s an odd clown with a mermaid in the back – but because it captures them working in their craft.

And there’s a funny story about how my dog always comes with me on sittings. I’m down there setting up the camera and working out the landscape aspect of the portrait. It’s wise to get going before you start hassling your subjects. I like to have some time with what the background will look like before I get started. I find that it’s important to generate a pleasing landscape first, get it balanced and nice looking, and then impose the subject(s) on it. That’s why when I’m looking at landscapes, I wonder when the person’s going to show up.

Anyway, there I am, down on the beach setting up – Leif and Claudie are up in the car getting changed, and I realise that I haven’t seen my dog Daisy for a little bit too long. I whistle and she comes exploding over the hill, with Leif, made up and costumed, in fast pursuit. She has his red rubber nose in her mouth.

“Your dog has my nose!”

Oh, and here’s the out-take, which no one has actually ever seen before.

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It’s creepier, right? Sometimes, I think restraint is nice in a picture. You can get too creepy.

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We had a lovely morning shooting the clown and the mermaid, mostly because we had the extra treat of musical accompaniment. This is my friend Anna, who agreed to come along to the island and let me have two sittings in one. So the whole time that we’re making the clown and the mermaid, we’re being serenaded by a lovely woman with a violin. For portraitists looking to ease their subjects, I highly recommend bribing musicians to come along for the ride.

It was a swell morning for all, and everyone enjoyed themselves. I think that the look on Anna’s face really shows this off.

MT09_A_Shelton_Sauvie_2008_1

“Candid” photography with the 8×10 is awkward but not impossible. Right after we made this last portrait, I noticed a boat coming down the river. Moving boat in the background? That sounds great. I yelled to Anna and she came running; I banged the camera around to get it in just the right spot and managed to get off two shots with the moving boat as the background. This is the one which worked.

I know that a lot of people like to switch out their cameras regularly. Sometimes, people like to have a new toy, and sometimes the modern technology demands it, but I think one of the unexpected consequences of this is that people never work with their gear long enough to really know it.

Me, I’m a one camera man. For my own flow, it’s critical that I know where everything is, what every shutter speed is actually doing, what levers and knobs are loose and which are tight, where the bellows may or may not be leaking light. Think of it like a soldier with his weapon – because I spend so much time with it, I could field strip my Deardorff in the dark with a blindfold on. Part of this is because I have sort of an unnatural relationship with my camera. Part of this is because every once in a while I find myself running down a beach, chasing a violinist and a boat. These things happen. You better be ready.

MT10_Ms. T. Miller, Sofada, 2010 No1

Speaking of action and adventure, here’s one where it gets dangerous. My friend Tasha is pretty breath-taking by herself, and she has a weakness for ballgowns. I ran into her and she mentioned that she was having a dress commissioned especially for her. I had made portraits with her before, both her and that car – with its “Tasha” vanity plate – and had been contemplating the next shoot for a while, so I suggested that we shoot her in her new dress.

Turns out that we had to go to the dress shop itself, because she needed the staff there to help her get into it. This dress was kind of a big deal. Well, that’s fine, cause it gave me some time to get the car right where I wanted it in the frame. That took about five minutes. Tasha took about half an hour, which left me on the street with the Deardorff, fending off passers-by. Anybody who has ever been shooting in public with a big wooden camera will sympathise with this. And we’ll speak a bit more about it later. Back to Tasha – eventually she emerged, all decked out, ready for her fancy portrait. Now, bear in mind that this is first thing in the morning – like 9am – on Burnside – and I swear to god we’re lucky we got out of that without causing a car accident.

I mean, it’s easy to be sympathetic. Imagine that you’re a dude, you’re driving to work with your coffee between your knees, and you look up and there’s this Amazonian goddess in a ball gown standing up in the back of her Cadillac convertible. There was a lot of screeching of brakes and so forth. You’ll be pleased to know that nothing bad happened. And dudes at work all along Burnside had distracting thoughts for the whole morning.

MT11_senor_ayala_2006_brb

Let’s talk a bit more about “the decisive morning”. Everyone knows that photography happens fast, really fast, like a thirtieth of a second. And Cartier-Bresson and the street shooters have pummeled into us the truism that the decisive moment is everything. That practicing your whole life so that you’re ready for that moment when it occurs is what we should all be doing as photographers.

This is a sentiment with which I agree.

However, it’s not the only truth. Large format photography, especially large format portraiture, is exactly the opposite. I miss stuff all the time – all those beautiful little in-between moments always go unrecorded by me. When I’m standing there prepping, I see them, the simple little flashes in between poses, and I love them, but I’m not going to get them. There’s some loss there, and I acknowledge it. Hopefully, I’m making up for it by going hard the other way.

I like the formalism that the camera causes. I like how it sort of scares people – it’s big and intimidating and it does its job nicely. Not just the job of taking pictures, but the job of working with me as a collaborator. By having some impact on the scene, the camera completes the process.

So, here we are with my friend Tomás. Now, I’ve known him for a while and think he’s an interesting person, but I’ve never been to his house. We start talking, and his obsession with carrier pigeons begins to emerge. Well, now – that’s interesting.

So we go heading over there one fine fall morning. I’m minding the light, but we seem to have enough time to let the morning evolve. Tomás serves espresso in little white cups and we set and talk for a while, watching the pigeon coop. I’m getting a little nervous about the light changing up on me, but we’re really enjoying our conversation.

The sun comes up abruptly – it seemed abrupt at the time – and suddenly, I’m in a panic. So we rush around and jam the camera into place and he gets his favorite pigeon and I manage to pull two or three frames before the entire backyard is flooded with high key sunshine. At the top of this frame, you can see the sun creeping in. I was a bit late.

My point is this – the actual moment is important, but for this kind of portraiture, the events leading up to it, the coffee and the conversation, are what gets us both on the same page and makes an image like this possible. It’s not the moment, so much – it’s the whole morning.

MT12_spoons

So, here’s the “famous” picture of me bending spoons. This was a really pleasant afternoon, raining, I was more or less trapped in the house, and I wanted to make a photo. No one else was around, so I had to be my own victim. I’m a big advocate of making self portraits – I firmly believe that every working portraitist should be making pictures of themselves with regularity. Not as a one time experiment, but all the time, to remind yourself what it’s like on the other side of the camera.

So I made this shot. I was quite pleased with the negative, and anxious to print it. My ex was working with me in the darkroom when I pulled the print and her reaction was priceless. I hadn’t told her what I was printing, or that I had even done this, I just handed her the exposed paper. While she was swishing it around in the developer, she stamped her feet and said “That’s what happened to all my spoons! You bent all my spoons for this goofy picture.” I replied: “Baby, I bent those spoons with my mind and then I took this picture. Aren’t you impressed?”

The public response was a little dicier. I was a little shy about showing it, but I had an exhibition and not quite enough new work, so up it went. While it was pretty well received, I also got a lot of interesting comments. “Jake, I had no idea you had such a dark side”. And that took me a couple of minutes to figure out.

No, folks, I am not a heroin addict. Yes, I bent those spoons with my mind. And then took a picture.

I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to show it. This is pretty early in the series, and I was a little fussy about the narcissism necessary to put a picture of yourself up on the wall. But there was a show, and I had space to fill, and really, I liked it, so up it went.

Coincidentally, Terry actually made an appearance at an art show, and he liked it, and suggested that it should be added to the museum’s collection.

Well, that’s cool. I mean, that’s sort of the final thing, right? I’m in the museum collection, I can stop now, right?

And then there’s months of paperwork back and forth and getting through the collections process, and the longer I have to think about it, the more I think – “Oh, was Terry just being nice?”

Then we got Julia. We’re good friends now, but we hadn’t even met when she executed her first show of portraits at the museum. And she hung it.

And that was the best. It’s cool when your pal pulls something for the collection; it’s even cooler when the new lady actually hangs it.

It honours me greatly that I had anything pulled for the museum’s collection. I guess it’s sort of the ultimate recognition for a “fine art” photographer. It pleases me even more that one hundred years from now, I will personally be glowering down on the rest of the photo collection.

MT13_Mr. Shivery, Mr. McFadden, Mr. Ogden, N. St. Johns, 2009

I’m going to stay on self portraits for a bit longer; don’t worry. This one took a little doing, cause we’re shooting into a giant eight foot by eight foot mirror, and, as it turns out, it’s really hard to find an eight foot by eight foot mirror. These guys – Sean and Oliver – were members of my loyal staff, the class clowns if you will, and they were pleased as punch when I asked them to come stand behind me and mock me.

I was pleased with the way that it came out. It was the first shot in one of my autumn photography breaks – I try to take off a week from work when the light changes and just roam around and shoot. It’s very good to be able to concentrate on that and nothing else. This one kicked off one of those especially productive weeks.

Ultimately, I was sort of interested in what I actually looked like when photographing. But I wanted to make it with my own camera, and not another camera taking a picture of my camera. Hence the mirror. Which we did end up breaking. Of course we did.

MT14_80 Mr. J. Shivery, N. Syracuse St., 2012

I’ll abuse you with one last one of myself. I bring this up because it takes me back to my roots. When I was a geeky kid and didn’t have any friends, I knew I wanted to make portraits. Since I couldn’t lure anybody in, I ended up shooting myself a lot.

Well, one morning I woke up to an April snowfall and when I went outside realised that my camellia tree was in full bloom, covered in snow, and broken by the weight of the snow. Perfect for a picture. No one wanted to come out and play, so I had to use myself.

So, now that we’ve looked at three pictures of me, let’s talk a bit about narcissism. There’s people in the room right now – you know who you are – who are currently stewing about my implied narcissism. Just cause I’m showing pictures of myself.

Well, they’re wrong.

Listen, every time you take a picture, any time you do anything productive, really, you’re engaging in a sort of narcissism. Add to that the idea that you have the gall to take pictures of people and try and freeze time like that, well that’s the definition of the term. Who am I to take pictures at all? Who am I to take portraits of people and then show them? Much less sell them…

Well, if you’re going to have the gall to take portraits, then you can’t hide from it. You have to be willing to administer the same treatment to yourself, and then deal with the results. Ultimately, I think it’s true narcissism to be a person who thinks they can do it to everybody else and not do it to yourself.

This is not the most flattering photo of me. If someone else had taken it, I’m not sure I would like it very well. But I was there, and that was a really nice morning. And I think it’s important for portraitists to remember that sometimes we like the photos better than our subjects do, even when our subjects are ourselves. It’s useful practice.

MT15_26 Ms. T. Slottke, N. Syracuse, 2010 No1

This is my friend Tiffany. Months before we made this portrait, I was talking to her at a party when she turned her head just a certain way. That moment got fixed in my brain, and we started scheming on her next portrait – I’ve shot her several times. Eventually, she had inherited her father’s shotgun, and wanted to incorporate that. I was stuck on cars at the time, and so we integrated all three things – the tilt of her face, the gun and the car, and made this one. I’ve always liked it, because it’s not uncommon for people to miss the gun completely. Every once in a while, though, that’s all they can see. I love the quiet menace.

OK – This is a weird segue, but don’t worry, I’ll bring it back around.

My old man asked me a question once, while he was looking at a hanging show. Now, he’s a smart man, my dad, but he is firmly entrenched in the “I don’t know art, but I know what I like” school of thought. Let’s just say he’s had better things to do with his time than consider the definition of art and so forth. So he comes to me with the first thing on his mind: “Why are they in black and white?”

Well, because the film’s cheaper, of course.

Actually, it’s a profoundly good question. I got thinking about it, and right about the same time I was gifted a small box of color film, so I thought I’d try the experiment. Had a photo in my head, got everything lined up the way that I like it, made the portrait. Without changing anything at all, made it again in color.

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By way of process, I tried my best to mirror my usual technique. I’m not the strongest color printer in the world anymore, so my colleague Faulkner pulled the contact prints for me. The color negs were darkroom contact printed, nice and dense and warm the way that I like. I had the opportunity to hang two shots in a group show, so I hung both of my “experimental” color portraits. And you know what? They looked just like pictures.

When is a portrait actually just a picture? When it’s in color.

No, seriously, the portrait is meant to have a little heavier presence than just the picture. A really easy way to convey this is to take people out of their usual perception and show it to them in a way that they can’t actually see it. Black and white does this. Except for our color-blind friends, everybody can see the world in color. Nobody sees it as a tonal scale of grays.

mt17_tiff_dyptych

In this example, I’ll draw your attention to the shotgun. In the BW picture, most people have to look at if for a while before they even notice the weapon. In the color version, you can’t see anything else. In the portrait, this is of the girl. In the picture, this is of the gun.

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OK, Humour: A few years back, Zeb and I went down to see the museum’s show of Elliott Erwitt. When we talked about it afterward, we both had basically the same comment – everybody today takes themselves so seriously. Erwitt was not afraid of humour. Erwitt’s work is always elegantly executed, and a bit of it is humorous, but he’s not going out of his way to be a “funny” photographer. He’s just not scared of making a picture which will make you laugh. Because what’s wrong with that? I think it’s possible to still take a body of work – dare we say “medium” – seriously, even if it’s got some quirky elements to it.

So I’m photographing my friends Bruce and Carla, who have just had their first baby, Olympia. Now, Bruce is a puppeteer, and he is so all the way to the core – he can’t quite ever stop being a puppeteer. So when he brings his infant daughter out to meet me, he holds her up alongside his head and starts in with the ventriloquist routine. “Hi Jake”, he makes her say, in a funny monster voice. Now, that’s funny. The way I see it, it’s my job as portraitist to try and bring that humour and good spirit across.

Important to note – I’m not making fun of my subjects. If they’re funny, I’ll try and bring that over. But if they’re accidentally doing something funny, it’s my job to skirt around that. I think that the whole point of portraiture is to make something that the subject will not only like, but relish.

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But I keep it easy on myself, and don’t try to make portraits of people that I don’t have a relationship with already. I only make portraits of people for whom I have affection. I don’t have any interest in making portraits of the famous or the important, or even the interesting. I don’t roam around and ply my trade with people that I don’t know, because it diminishes my point. I keep it easy by only having sittings with people that I care to sit with.

MT20_01 Ms. A. Jones, N. Willamette, 2009 No1

Here’s my friend and neighbor Angela. We’ve been making portraits together for several years now, and I’m always pleased with the results. This is her in her backyard chicken coop. This is a monstrous coop – me and the Deardorff are actually inside there with her – you can’t see Daisy running around like a maniac on the outside.

Angela was preparing for a trip to the South Pole – not McMurdo, but the really little station down at the actual bottom of the world. This was promising to be an intense trip, and she was going to have to be giving up her chicken coop and the rest of her life for a year, so we wanted to make something that she could use to remember it all. Fleeting moments.

You can’t tell this from the screen, but the 8×10 format really shines here. Looking at the contact print, you can make out the delicate lace of the dress. It’s really rich. Generally, I don’t like that dappled light; I find it to be a pain in the neck to print. Here, I think it works pretty well, and it gives her some warmth to look up into.

MT21_Ms. A. Jones, Sauvie Island, 2009 No2

Here’s one of our favorites – another excellent morning out on Sauvie Island. I’m not sure I really remember where the blindfold came from, but it made sense at the time. Just to finish it off, you’ll notice “incidental Daisy” in the car.

And so all this gives me a much more limited base upon which to draw, which is, ultimately, also the point. I’ve mentioned this in the past, but photographing the same people repetitively is really a major part of the point. I’m aiming for the long term, and the big – really big – body of work. I’m going to make portraits of the same people until I die. When I’m through, what I hope comes out is the evolution of my favorite subjects – a giant, 8×10 flip book of folks getting older.

I feel especially blessed to be as close as I am to as many people as I am, and even more so because they all make such agreeable portrait subjects.

MT22_angela_jones_lily

This is a more recent shot – I just went over to visit for coffee one morning – Angela and her husband Nick live a few blocks away – I was intending to shoot, but as we often do, we got very distracted by conversation. We ended up talking forever, but we still squeaked this one out. It’s all natural, it’s all incidental.

One of the big advantages to shooting people over and over again is that they become more comfortable with the process. Angela is not necessarily the sort of person who likes having her picture taken, but she likes my project, and by this point it’s old hat for her. It’s comfortable and easy and that helps make portraits like this one.

That’s Angela and Nick’s new dog Lily, who’s much happier looking in person.

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This was the first one we did, back in 2008. I had known that I wanted to shoot her, and then she sprained her arm in a biking accident. Perfect. I mean, for the portraitist, events like these are a gold mine. I like catching people in the midst of something different. One of the big points of portraits for me is capturing time when it happens – gathering images of people at important and pivotal moments of their lives.

Busting your arm might not seem like a pivotal event, but it is something to remember, and it gives the portrait a certain strength that it wouldn’t have otherwise.

MT24_05 Mr. D. McCormick & Mr. M. McCormick, Ace Typewriter Co, 2008

This is Dennis McCormack and his son Matt of Ace typewriter, up in St Johns. They run a retail typewriter repair store, and keep Blue Moon Camera in the typewriter business. He’s ninety, and warm and a pleasure to be around. He’s very active, and very Catholic, has a shrine to his deceased wife in the back of his shop, the whole bit. Any time I stop by, he always offers me a little wine or a little beer, or a little coffee with cranberry juice in it.

The in-focus/out-of-focus thing works really well here. My pal Matt back there, he’s the guy that fixes all the machines these days, but he’s not the kind of guy that’s going to stand still for a portrait. But he’ll happily hang out in the back while we make a portrait of his father.

Ace typewriter is important as one of those businesses which won’t exist in a hundred years. We as photographers should be doing what we can do to preserve these things for posterity. Men like Dennis McCormack aren’t likely to exist in a hundred years.

Get it while you can.

MT25_21 Mr. R. Dietrich and Mr. J. Kelley, NE 28th 2009

OK, so here’s my boys. That’s Rob up in the front and Jason in the back. They both have held similar spots in my life – always nice to have men around who like loading and driving trucks. I’ve known Rob about fifteen years, we were friends in Denver – where he still lives, and Jason pretty much the whole time that I’ve been in Portland. They are similar men who still manage to enjoy each other’s company. They are both very handy to have on hand when it’s time to move stuff around. Generally speaking, when it comes time for a truck to get loaded and driven away, it’s my job to step aside and let men like these ply their craft. Many trips with many different kinds of trucks full of loot have been made significantly easier by having one of these men in my life. This morning was important, because they were both present and ready to help.

There’s a great confluence of events here – they had just finished rapidly unloading this truck and they looked very pleased with themselves – very accomplished. The yawning maw of the truck looked great, the light was really perfect, and for some unknown reason, I had my camera with me. Serendipity.

Have you noticed that they’re dressed the same? Rob’s visiting from out of town – we put him to work and Jason’s always ready for the task, but the identical clothes are entirely incidental. This is what you wear when you’re a pro at loading and driving truck.

It’s a nice picture, and I’ve always liked it. What’s important about it is the lesson about editing and selling. This was the thirty-ninth portrait in a thirty-eight print show. When I dropped off my stuff at the gallery, I left it behind, you know, just in case there was a hole somewhere. It didn’t especially fit with the rest of the show, but I liked it well enough.

Well, it was the first thing to sell – it sold before I even got back up for the opening.

I had shown something pretty similar in an earlier show and I don’t generally care to repeat myself, but this image kept evading various culls, and I knew that at some point it was going to have to be on a wall. Being wishy-washy about it just proved the point – you can’t edit yourself. This one paid for itself. First.

MT26_56 Ms. L. Shmulewitz and Mr. J. Kelley, N. Maryland, 2010 No1

And this is what you get when you ask me to shoot your engagement portrait. Something that looks like a divorce portrait. You can almost hear the violins in the background.

This is one of those where I’m going to get my chops busted for “dressing my friends up” for portraits. I rarely ask for any specific wardrobe, and this is one of the times where I didn’t. Lori and Jason would look good in their jeans and sneakers, but they had something else in mind for their 8×10 engagement shoot. It’s one of the reasons I like the format so well – it causes a different type of behavior in the subjects. Generally, because it is such a formal process, it makes people wish to look their best. Or look the way they ultimately wish to. I do my best to accommodate.

There were more romantic shots from this sitting, but this one continues to stick out in my mind.

MT27_45 Mr. R. Graves, Latourell Falls, 2010 No1

Rude under the waterfall is an example of a highly produced photograph – this is an image I carried around in my head for a year while I was searching for a barrel.

This is not a picture of a guy in old fashioned swimwear acting like he just went over a waterfall in a barrel. This is a shot of my friend Rude, who is the only guy I know who would go over a waterfall in a barrel. Specifically, I did not have the thought first and then cast Rude in the main part – I spent some time considering what would make a good “narrative” portrait of Rude, and this is what I came up with.

Unlike most of my other portrait shoots, this one involved a crew. Generally, I’m not interested in making a production out of it – this is not commercial photography after all, and I feel like a bunch of extraneous people only puts distance between me and my subject. This shot required it – if only because there was a big barrel that needed carrying.

So Rude and I and Jason – you’ll remember him from the truck driver portrait – and John – you’ll remember him from “robot pants” – made a trip out to the Columbia Gorge in search of the correct waterfall. Lucky for me that I had such stout help along, as the waterfall was at the bottom of a cliff of precarious wet rocks and down there was where we needed the camera, tripod, film and barrel. There was a lot of carrying. Furthermore, the light was perfect, but rapidly changing.

And so it was a stressful shoot, and I am glad to have the image. Even at that distance, the waterfall was spraying my lenses and dark slides. Rude was freezing. The sunlight was rapidly rising in the sky and working its way down the waterfall. This frame was taken moments before it was too late – the sun was just at the edge of the frame, threatening to blow out the waterfall completely.

And then – here comes the dentist. Now, the dentist is the nemesis of the large format photographer – we’re talking here about a guy who has a lucrative day job during the week and a camera obsession at night. They’re easy to spot – carrying a lot of photo gear, traveling to tourist spots, generally wearing a tackle vest stuffed full of photographic accessories. You’ve all been there. You all know what it’s like when you’re trying to work and some guy wanders up to talk about photography.

But there they are – they’re out on the weekends, making “art”, following the well worn paths of a century of waterfall photographers before them. And they’re a nuisance to anyone using a big wooden camera, because they can’t help themselves.

So this guy is up at the top of the rise, and I’ve already seen him see me, and the Deardorff, and he is now making a beeline down the slope and I know what’s next: twenty minutes of him discussing with me everything he knows about large format photography, the history of the Deardorff, the reason why he, himself, has decided that he’s better off with a modern digital camera, etc, etc. Smoking and cussing while I’m shooting is generally my good defense for warding these people off, but I knew that this time it wouldn’t be enough.

Meanwhile, as mentioned, the camera’s getting wet, Rude’s freezing, the light is changing and I am desperately trying to actually make this work. All the elements are before me, I just have to get them lined up and in focus, and I’m on the edge of losing twenty minutes to a tourist. To a dentist.

Bear in mind, this guy is also my client base, so I can’t piss him off. I don’t want to show my feelings and point out that I’m busy, because sure as hell he’ll wind up strolling up to the counter six months later, possibly to buy something, and he’ll suddenly remember – “Oh, you’re that guy.”

So, the dentist is chugging down the hill as fast as his fat little legs will carry him, his family of piglets in tow, camera bouncing on his belly, and he’s already lining up his speech. John is standing behind me like a human shield – he’s clearly aware of the incoming threat. The dentist gets within about six feet of my back and is already opening his mouth when John, totally deadpan, quietly and dryly announces:

“Gay porn in progress”.

Bam. Like a ricocheting billiard ball, the dentist slingshots forty five degrees in a heartbeat and doesn’t break stride heading down an alternate trail. I pull the dark slide on my last exposure – the winner, of course – this one – and the crisis is averted. The sun cruises down the waterfall too late to stop me, and we’re finished – a successful day in spite of the best efforts of nature, light, and incidental dentists.

MT28_01 Ms. L. LeBlanc, N. Winchell St., 2011 No1

Here’s part of the “work” series – that is, folks with their tools. I think I was actually over there shooting because Loly was getting ready to cut her hair and wanted a little testament of having it long. But I saw this dress form and went a little crazy – and then even more crazy when she told me that it was conformed to her actual proportions. That’s just a perfect thing to shoot.

MT29_loly_poster

I was really pleased with the way it came out, and it turned into the promotional card for the Powell’s show. I liked the way the card came out, and decided to try something unusual and make a really big print. The nice people at U-develop did an excellent job pulling that thing all the way up to four feet wide and we hung it in the stairwell landing at Powell’s.

It was a little surreal, for both me and for Loly, to see this gigantic image up on the wall. And that’s what you’re supposed to do with 8×10, right? I mean, it’s a huge negative, so let’s make really, really big prints.

And I’ve done it, I’ve used the big 8×10 enlarger and pulled darkroom prints and made stuff that was life size or better, but it’s a little like shooting in color – it starts looking like just a picture. Nothing out there really looks like a contact print. Big prints are cool, and certainly trendy right now, but for me, they don’t have the same depth and punch as a contact print. I like the little 8×10 contacts because they seem more like artifacts. They have a certain gravity I just can’t achieve when I blow images up very large.

Having said that, I’ll share with you all that I have a secret long term aspiration. I’m aiming for this when I turn fifty, maybe sixty years old, but I’d love to have a giant show of giant prints. I’d love to fill a space with thirty or forty of these things, all blown up to eight feet by ten feet, hanging like flags, holding their native proportions, doing everything I can do to make them look like contact prints, just really, really big contact prints. Of course I want to do this in the darkroom, so it’ll take some doing.

And a raise. And a grant. And lotto.

MT30_38 Dr. J. Dolan, Sauvie Island, 2011 No5

So here’s our lovely curator Dr. Dolan, out with me on one of my favorite decisive mornings.

We went out to Sauvie Island really early in the morning, in the winter time, despite perhaps a little bit of protesting about the status of the weather. Julia, I’m sorry again about the cold, but that’s where the light is.

We were traveling with our mutual friend Julian and the three of us were enjoying some nice conversation and camaraderie. I was plying them with coffee in tea cups and the light was diffuse and wintery. Altogether a perfect morning.

Daisy was with us, too, of course – this dog gets very excited every time I load up the car with the camera rig because she always gets to go and there’s generally some fun for her. By the time we were out on the island, she was quite excited – cause this also means some playing on the beach.

So I’m hauling the camera around and fiddling with the lenses and setting up my landscape and more or less unconsciously pitching the ball for the dog. Everything’s looking great, and I’m moments away from calling Julia into the frame, when all of a sudden, the dog starts screaming.

For those of you who don’t know, she’s more or less a three legged dog; her front left doesn’t work quite right. She was about fifty feet away from me and had hit a pothole and twisted her bad leg.

So I go running over to her and by the time I get there, she’s forgotten all about it. She won’t walk on the foot of course, but she’s part lab, part mule, and she feels no pain, especially if there’s a tennis ball in play. I verified that the leg wasn’t broken, and made her lay down next to me, but this wasn’t her first sprain and I knew from experience that: A.) There’s nothing I can do about it except put her on light duty for the next six weeks and B.) She wants to stay on the beach.

So, a little rattled, we proceed with the shoot.

And that’s what you’re seeing here. Julia multi-tasking – sitting for her portrait and simultaneously caring for the dog, keeping her from running around.

The light’s perfect, the company is swell, everything’s hitting great, but the added drama and responsibility of the dog tripping herself up made this portrait complete.

And that’s the decisive morning.

MT31_10 Ms. A. Torresola, Oaks Park, 2008 no1

Here’s my friend Aïda with one of her favorite things – roller skates, and at one of her favorite places – Oak’s park. This is a little bit older, and at the time, I was roaming around the city trying to find every passé and trite landmark I could find, and then make it more interesting by sticking a person in it. That project didn’t last long – I don’t really like leaving St. Johns, for one, and I don’t really have the context to know what’s passé and what’s not.

I was pleased that RACC bought this for their Visual Chronicle of Portland a couple of years ago. Nice to think that some city hallway is being decorated with “hot girl on roller skates”.

On the subject of money, let’s talk about selling prints.

Specifically, I get a lot of flak about selling “too cheap”. Like I’m going to single-handedly de-value the whole industry or something.

I’m in business for myself, which you probably know is another way of saying that I’m perpetually broke. I do like to support the art community when I can and personally buy what I can. I wish for art to be accessible, and for my own art, specifically, to be available to people at my own income level. When I’m figuring out my price tags, I consider that if it was me, I might want to buy a print.

So I price “cheap”. It was only a couple of years ago that I finally sold enough prints out of one show to hit that golden break even point. That was a big deal.

In the meanwhile, I think it’s one of the great strengths of the photographic medium. It’s re-producible. They’re not paintings, folks, and while I take pride in my craft, I can always make another one. And another one. And so on.

Of course I like selling prints, and of course I like getting fairly compensated for it, but I’m also aware that I’m effectively just starting out, and I’m pleased that I’m in a medium which allows me to keep it accessible.

Which is a good segue for one of the questions I get a lot – “why show?”

MT32_40 Ms. K. Sorg, St. Johns Bridge, 2012 No1

Before we get to that, a couple of words about this picture.

This is Kelly Sorg from a pleasant little shoot last year. Blue Moon Camera was in the midst of renovating the store, and I was working A Lot – and really missing making any art. So I freed myself up long enough to sneak out for one morning shoot down under the bridge, and Kelly was nice enough to come along.

I’ve been working on a new little series, the “currency” photos. Once I get around to inventing my own currency, these are the shots that I wish to use for the bills.

I like them – non-narrative, close up and intense, heavily posed, pretty classic looking. It’s simple, and yet, it’s so loaded.

Oh, and now she’s my girlfriend. A lot of water under the bridge between when we took that and now, but it’s pretty cool dating the person who’s going to be on your hundred dollar bill.

OK – showing.

As many of you know, showing is a pain. There’s the money thing – it’s ludicrously expensive to mount a proper show. There’s the self promotion aspect – most of us don’t get a lot of joy in pitching our own work. Folks working at my level still have to be out on the street, trying to get people to have a look – it’s unpleasant and distracting. Then there’s dealing with the galleries – the less said about that, the better. Then there’s the anxiety and then it’s opening night and you have to stand around and talk a lot. I mean really, how much wine and cheese can one man consume?

Oh, and why doesn’t anyone serve proper spirits at these things? I swear to god, one day I’m going to have my way, and we’ll have an opening where everybody gets shots of rye and pork rinds.

OK – for me, it works like a deadline. I do enjoy the process of shooting, but of course it’s very easy to get distracted with regular life and find many, many ways to put it off. If I know I have a show coming up, then I have to shoot. And everything takes forever. Shooting eight by ten and then printing fibre and then matting and framing – I need months of lead time. So I try to get a show scheduled a year out, and that keeps me on track.

And when production is finally over and done with, and the stuff’s up on the wall, then I can resume shooting. Which is a relief.

But there’s a more important concept at work, here. Things need to be brought to fruition – visual work doesn’t even really exist until it’s out there in front of an audience.

Why show? Why not? Not showing a print that you’re proud of is like executing a perfect tango with a beautiful woman and then not shacking up with her in a hotel room. As I say, things need to be brought to fruition.

It’s a circle of life question. Taking the time to make them is important, and I, like many others, really enjoy the process. I love to make photos, both in the field and then later in the darkroom. I love setting up the camera, and I love setting up the trays. For me, that’s really the point.

But ultimately, they have to be shown. If you’re proud of them, or even if you’re just semi-proud and unsure – it’s always useful to get some public reaction.

I make a point of curating my own shows myself, before I release them into the wild. Showing is important, for the deadline, for the circle of life, and also for the public reaction. I’ll take a fifty image body of work and cull it down to twenty or thirty, and always with a mind towards keeping the project going. I am influenced by what the public says, either in person or over the internet, but it’s not the only factor. One of the big factors is keeping it consistent. In a way, I am making the same picture over and over again, but that’s one of the major points. I have a long planning horizon, and I want them to all hang together. I’ll always be tweaking my process, but I’m also completely ready to enjoy this period where I’m receiving some nice attention and where people like my work. I’ll keep kicking out more of the same, and I’m already braced to suffer through the next period where folks are tired of it. At the end, it’ll be a big old body of work, the one note on the piano over and over again, hopefully to perfection.

Give me ten more years, and I’ll make something that will make you cry. I promise.

 

 

MT00_DR06939_DR06939-R2-E004

Jake, Daisy, and the Deardorff by David Reamer

 

 

Eight Girls Taking Pictures: a novel – A non-literary review

by Whitney Otto

A novel by Whitney Otto

 

The short of it is that I love this book.  It caught my attention at Powell’s earlier this year because of the illustration on its cover – an instantly recognizable one for a film photographer- a Rolleiflex.  I didn’t buy it that day, but the book stayed on my mind and when I finally got my hands on it, I knew that if I should use my hard earned income on one hardback book this year, this would be it.  If you’re interested, there are plenty of reviews of this book from a variety of perspectives; this is a personal review from a young photographer.

The book, described as a novel, is divided into eight stories, each one centered around a single main character.  The stories focus as much on the women’s formative years as the years where photography was their profession.  Ms Otto’s characters share a common trait – they are independent and very modern women who travel the world on their own, and those experiences make them ponder their role within society and in the art world, as well as their professional and personal options when they come home.

I would recommend this book to photographers and non photographers alike.  It does not take a photographer to fall in love with the narrative and the ever relevant questions it raises.  And while it is a book that deals with photography, it is also one that deals with art in a more universal way.  Mostly, though, it is a book about women who are in love with photography and with men (or in the case of one character, another woman).

In addition, the novel is about the difficulty of being a woman in a field dominated by men and where women have to choose between forging their own path or following a path charted by their male counterparts.  Amadora Allesbury , a photographer practicing portraiture in the 1910s, decides to include color in her images, a bold move in an era where black and white was more common and less experimental.  She also creates her own brand of portraiture, moving away from the stiff portraits of society ladies and embracing a more unconventional style.  Lenny Van Pelt becomes a combat photographer during the Second World War, by accident, after a career as a model, a photographer’s assistant and later, a fashion photographer.

The wives and mothers among them have the choice to work but sometimes opt to stay at home and educate their children.  While they continue making art, it is within the confines of the home.  Cymbeline makes photographs of domestic life : of her children, garden and flowers; Jenny’s most popular and controversial subjects are also her children; Miri documents the events she sees happening from her apartment window.  She captures weddings, children at play, the changing seasons.  Their gazes turn inward, but there is still a sense that their photographs don’t reflect the particular as much as the general.  When Jenny makes photos of her children, she is not just capturing her children on film, she is showing us childhood.

Photograph by Anne Di Elmo

Photograph by Anne Di Elmo

 

Several times, the character Cymbeline Kelley broaches the question of photography as a serious pursuit for men, even a career path, but a mere hobby for women, who – according to their male counterparts – make ‘pleasant’ photographs (i.e not art).  This is an issue that particularly resonated with me.  Cymbeline remarks that “the men only see what we do as sweet, sentimental, missing the meaning entirely as they view us as women who make photographs in our spare time.  They don’t take our subject seriously because they cannot see it – even when Miri Marx writes, if you want to know what it’s like to be a housewife, I can show you.  Nor do they consider the steel it takes to raise the kids, run the household, be a wife and still keep alive the artist part of you”.

In the world of serious amateur photographers, men who practice street photography or landscape photography are revered and lauded often, but women who choose to concentrate on still lives, no matter how great their skills, will be told by male photographers that their images are simply ‘nice’.  Or worse, they’ll have to bear with such enlightening commentary as ‘I’ll have some of that’ about a particularly beautifully lit and composed image of food.  But a man who shares some exceptionally bland street or landscape photography will be hailed as a genius by his peers.

The same goes for women photographers who make photographs of their children or of attractive female models.  In this particular case, the attention of the male audience will be diverted to the attractiveness of said children or female models.  ‘Cute kids!’, as opposed to ‘beautiful composition and use of light’ is a comment that is often heard.

Another element of note is that Whitney Otto shows the trajectory that her characters’ art and processes take.  We follow Cymbeline’s growth as a photographer, from assistant to photochemistry student, to portrait photographer who focuses on a romantic relationship, to one who chooses to portray “domesticity as a garden, plant by plant, flower by flower, tree by tree”.

Photograph by Anne Di Elmo

Photograph by Anne Di Elmo

 

One of Whitney Otto’s many skills lies in not only understanding the shifts that happen in a photographer’s style and subject – which I imagine are fairly similar to those experienced by writers – but also understanding photography as an art and a craft.  She describes the techniques employed by her subjects in a manner that emphasizes not just the skills they require, but the senses they bring into play.  She aptly describes, for instance, the way a Rolleiflex feels in one’s hands, the operation of its advance crank, and the act of looking through a waist level finder and composing with the image reversed in the glass.  All of those gestures and feelings are familiar to film photographers (certainly to all of us at Blue Moon) who cherish the routines as much as the results.

So go buy this book and spend some time with it.  Spend more time than you might otherwise on the narrative and Ms Otto’s style.  Imagine the way the cameras used by her eight female characters would feel in your hands. Picture the events that led to the creation of the images she so vividly describes.  And when you’re done, you should take up Ms Otto’s advice and read some of the books in the attached bibliography.  Consider this your suggested summer reading list. For now go shoot some film, possibly through your old Rolleiflex, just like Whitney Otto’s characters.

Photograph by Anne Di Elmo

Photograph by Anne Di Elmo

 

Find the book at these fine local establishments:
St Johns Booksellers
Powells

Resolving to understand scan resolutions

Both images are sized to the same length and width but at different resolutions.

Resolutions.

It seems they are either causing undue amounts of New Year’s-related angst or they are sending photographers into circles of confusion.  Well, we can help you with one of these problems (you’re on your own with that new diet come the new year).

Let’s start simple.  When we are talking about the resolution of a digital file – originating either from a DSLR or from a film scan – we are talking about a unit of measurement.  Much as you would use length and width to note how large a rectangle is, you use length, width and resolution to express the size of a digital image.  That’s right, digital images require three measurements.  Length and width are fairly self-explanatory, so if it helps, think of resolution in this case as density, or how much information is packed into the image.  I would like to take just a moment to emphasize the need for all THREE measurements.  If I ask ten photographers to give me an image sized to 8×10 inches it is entirely possible for each to ultimately give me different sized files by virtue of different resolutions.  They may all have lengths and widths that match my instructions but one image may have a resolution of 72 while another is set to 300 and so forth – see the opening image above for the difference this can cause.

So what exactly does this nebulous resolution number mean?  Generally it is expressed as “ppi” (pixels per inch) though “dpi” (dots per inch) is commonly used as well.  The more pixels/dots you have per inch, the more dense the information in your image.  So a resolution of 72 ppi means many fewer pixels are crammed in per inch than say, 300 ppi, which also means a print made from a 4×6 inch 72 ppi file is going to have less small detail and look more pixelated than a print made from a 4×6 at 300 ppi.

Resolution can be expressed with any number you can think of, which may seem overwhelming at first, but like length and width we can narrow that infinite number of possibilities down to a few popular choices: 72 and 300.  In short, 72 ppi is the resolution your images should be set to whenever they are going to be displayed on a computer screen, be that destination e-mail, Flickr, Facebook, Tumblr, you name it.  If it is on the web, then 72 is your number.  I know some of you in the audience want to raise your hands at this point to remark that this is not entirely true, that computer monitors can display at a variety of resolutions, but for the sake of simplicity and brevity, stick with 72 as a benchmark number.  A 300 ppi resolution is used for printing.  So whenever you are making a print to hang on the wall or put in a scrapbook album, you will size the image according to your desires and set the resolution to 300.  As with monitors it is true that not all printers output at 300; some suggest using 250 or 225 or even 200, but again as a general (and simple) rule of thumb, if you stick with 300 for printing you will always be fine.

Additionally there is little to no benefit from using a resolution higher than either 72 or 300 for their respective uses. Printing an 8×10 at 800 ppi will not result in a more detailed print than an 8×10 at 300 ppi because printers generally only output up to 300 dpi so anything beyond that is unused information. Likewise, a 5×7 image on a computer screen at 72 ppi looks just as nice as a 5×7 at 300 ppi because monitors are not capable of showing more than 72 pixels per inch.  So while it is true that using a lower-than-adequate resolution will negatively affect the quality of your images, using a higher-than-adequate will not result in any benefit.

So far so good?  A couple of examples, perhaps?  Let’s say Theresa gets an awesome photo of sunset at the beach and decides she wants to make a giant print for her wall which she is going to mat and frame and stare at proudly for years.  She settles on a 16×20 print as the size she wants, so she preps the image for her printer by cropping it to 16×20 and makes sure the resolution is set to 300, she saves the file and sends it off.  A couple of days later she picks up her new print and it looks gorgeous.  She then decides she is going to post the image to her Facebook account so her friends and family can enjoy it.  She figures that an 8×10 on a computer screen is large enough and sets her resolution to 72 and saves this as a new file (not wanting to overwrite her much larger original with this smaller version) and uploads it to Facebook.  Voila!

Now let’s take a gander at an image size editor.  The example below uses Photoshop, but Lightroom, Aperture, or most any other image editor will have a similar interface.

Image sizing

 The size of an image can be expressed in one of two methods, either through pixel dimensions or through document size.  Pixel dimensions is a bit tidier as it uses only length and width (but measured in pixels, not inches).  In terms of data, this is a cleaner approach.  The problem with pixel dimensions is that most of us don’t think in those terms.  You don’t look at a 16×20 on the wall and say, “that image looks great as a 4800 x 6000 pixel print.”  So most photographers tend to prefer document size.  By the way, pixel dimensions are calculated by taking the length or width of the document size and multiplying it by the resolution.  So our 6 inch 300 dpi image in the example above has a pixel dimension of 1800 pixels on its long end.

Ok, now I am going to throw a curveball your way.

Notice in both examples how my file size is 6.56M (as circled in red in the second image).  Also notice how the pixel dimensions remain the same in both images.  But look at the document size, in the upper version we have what amounts to a 6×4 at 300 ppi but in the bottom image we have 25×17.7 at 72 ppi, yet according to the pixel dimensions they are the same size.  As mentioned above, resolution is like density, so the thinner we spread it, the large an area it can cover.  Look at it this way; I give you a ball of clay and ask you to roll it out for me into a 4×6 rectangle.  Once done, you measure the thickness and find that your clay rectangle is fairly thick.  Now I ask you to roll that clay out into a 18×25 inch rectangle, which produces a very thin result.  The amount of clay overall has not changed, you have just spread it out thinner and over a larger area.  Document size works the same way.  The same file in this case can produce a 4×6 inch 300ppi print or it can make an 17.7×25 inch 72 ppi image on a computer monitor.  It is important to remember this because even though an image may have a resolution of 72 ppi, this one number by itself does not mean the image is low resolution.  An image of 72 ppi and a length of 60 inches has a pixel dimension of 4,320 pixels (72 x 60) which is the equivalent of 14.4 inches at 300 ppi (14.4 x 300 = 4320 pixels).  This throws some photographers off because they think that 72 equates to low resolution, but I remind you that it takes all three measurements used in conjunction with document size to fully express how big a file is.  Even a low resolution number coupled with very large lengths and widths can still make very large prints and therefore be a high resolution image.

In summary, it is important to remember that document size requires length, width and resolution.  A resolution of 72 ppi by itself means very little without an accompanying length and width, likewise a length and width without a resolution is equally incomplete.  Keep your resolutions narrowed to two numbers: 72 for computer screens and internet and 300 for printing.  Juggling only two numbers is much easier after all.  Finally, bear in mind that these numbers are flexible; an image 1800 pixels on a side can be either 6 inches at 300 ppi or 25 inches at 72 ppi. Hopefully this is now one less type of resolution you have to worry about.  Best of luck to you on those other ones that pop up come January 1st.

Vivian Maier, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Photography

My own attempt at a Vivian Maier-esque self portrait, using a similar Rolleiflex. Photo by Katt Janson

I can barely wait a week to see my developed film. Most photographers nowadays don’t even wait a minute. More and more I find myself wanting to see my work faster, oftentimes letting the quality and archivability of my art suffer so I can get gratification as fast as possible. I’ve become so obsessed with producing and perfecting the final image that my love of making a photograph has all but faded, and I believe this change in attitude is in fact detrimental to the tone and sincerity of my work. It’s been far too long since I’ve let my camera take me anywhere, since I let the picture-making become its own event.

The existential realization of this new change that has not necessarily been for the better came from an unexpected source. While living in Chicago during a year of career exploration and self-discovery, I was lucky enough to attend Vivian Maier’s first American show at the Chicago Cultural Center. Like many other people before and since, I was immediately inspired by the story of Maier’s life and the somewhat tragic, entirely serendipitous discovery of her work. There’s a lot to her story, most of which is inspiring. The thought that such a brilliant eye almost went completely undiscovered fascinates me. Unfortunately Maier’s life took a sad turn when she was unable to keep up with her storage unit’s payments, and the contents were sold at auction. Fortunately for us all, the buyers who discovered her negatives started showing her work to the world. When I walked into the Cultural Center that night, I became further inspired by her photography, as were the original witnesses of her emerging work on Flickr.

Rolls of undeveloped film at the Chicago Cultural Center's Vivian Maier gallery. Photo by Katt Janson

But perhaps the most inspiring part of that entire show for me was one very small, very curious detail. In the display cases containing her cameras, odd hats, and other personal effects found in the storage unit that contained her treasure trove of negatives were several rolls of undeveloped film. The note accompanying the rolls of film explained that of the 116,000 or more negatives known to exist in Vivian Maier’s various collections, many of them were never even developed in her lifetime. As a nanny, Maier often did not make enough money to have her negatives processed, but that never stopped her from producing them.

This one small detail blew my mind. It’s been two years since that show and I still dwell on the thought of going most of my life without ever really seeing a large portion of my work. I couldn’t imagine why Maier would continue photographing without the promise of seeing the fruits of her labor. It made me sad to think about her dying without having seen her powerful images, but then I realized that maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe it was the act of photography, the moment of exposure, the connection between herself, her subject, and her camera that mattered to her. And maybe that was one of her many secrets. She set out everyday, exposing on average twelve frames a day, for perhaps no reason other than she loved to do it. Maybe the labor itself was enough.

Somewhere along the way, I think I lost my love for the labor of photography. I’ve become so bogged down with thoughts of post process, alternative process, likes and faves and reblogs that my cluttered mind had little focus left to give to my environment or my camera. I’ve almost lost interest in environmental details that once interested me. As a photography lab technician, I spend my days looking at great photography. Because of this I’ve walked away from many photographic opportunities with the thought that I’d seen that picture before, possibly captured better than was within my capabilities. Most photographs, in my mind, now aren’t worth even an attempt, not one thirtieth of a second. And in looking at my work, it shows.

by Zeb Andrews

Zeb making pictures. Photo by Zeb Andrews

My coworker Zeb has a curious phrase that felt strange the first time I heard it, but makes more sense the more I think about it. Instead of “taking” pictures, he speaks of “making” them. A seemingly small change in syntax, the choice to “make” rather than “take” is one that intrigues me. What I see when I look at Maier’s work is someone who loved the experience of making pictures. With an undeniable understanding of the principles of photography under her belt, she left her home and places of employment to step boldly wherever her camera happened to take her. Sometimes it was just a walk down the street, sometimes it was Europe. Once it was the 1968 Democratic National Convention. There was no phantom audience, critic, or gallery curator to impress; she was into photography for photography’s sake. How many of us now can really say the same? Would you still do photography if you couldn’t see the results?

Maier’s story made me wonder who she was photographing for, until I finally turned my question on itself and asked: who am I photographing for? Recently it hasn’t been for me, not really. It’s been to hopefully please someone else, be it critic, friend, or general public. At some point I stopped making pictures for the joy of it, and the moment my own enjoyment stopped, my inspiration did, as well.

Making eye contact with an unknowing stranger through a waist-level viewfinder. Photo by Katt Janson

What I see now when I look at Maier’s work is someone who never stopped enjoying photography: a dedicated and enthusiastic capturer of moments and seducer of light. Hers is the work of someone in love with the click of the shutter, with the peak of a smile, with the thrill of eye contact made with an unknowing party through a waist-level viewfinder. Perhaps to her, the camera she held was an icebreaker between herself and her environment, a new way to view the world and capture it for a present moment. The permanent images might have only been a secondary bonus, and as a result her sincere empathy and engagement in the moment were captured as clearly as the people on her film. In my mind, Maier is the embodiment of that virginal moment when it’s just you, your light-safe box, and an open world full of possibilities.

Unfortunately, all this conjecture and discovery emerges without the ability to talk to the artist about her work. In 2009, the owner of 90% of Maier’s known body of work, John Maloof, found Vivan Maier’s name written on a lab envelope and Googled her. His search turned up an obituary published by the Chicago Tribune just days before. There are many of us now, myself included, who yearn to hear the artist speak about her work, to answer all the questions we’ve formed since seeing her images materialize from out of the shadows. There is intrigue, however, in the mystery. And I, for one, will always get a thrill and sense of gratitude in looking through the modern collections of her enticing images with the knowledge that regardless of whose eyes her pictures were meant for, they most certainly were not intended for mine.

 

If you haven’t seen Vivian Maier’s work in person, now’s the time. The show Vivian Maier Out of the Shadows from the Goldstein collection opened earlier this winter at Powell’s Books on Burnside, and is now at Blue Sky Gallery until March 3, 2013. I don’t know if her work will inspire you as much as it has myself, or Maloof, or all of the others I’ve spoken about it with, but I don’t think anyone can afford to miss the opportunity to find out.

 

Further Reading about Vivian Maier and her work:

Blue Sky Gallery: http://www.blueskygallery.org/

The original Flickr discussion about Maier’s photography, posted by John Maloof: http://www.flickr.com/groups/onthestreet/discuss/72157622552378986/

The Official website of the John Maloof Collection: http://www.vivianmaier.com/

Vivian Maier – Her Discovered Work; Maloof’s first website promoting Maier’s photography: http://vivianmaier.blogspot.com/

The Jeff Goldstein Collection: http://www.vivianmaierprints.com

Vivian Maier Street Photographer, ed. by John Maloof. powerHouse Books, 2011.

Vivian Maier Out of the Shadows, by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams. CityFiles Press, 2012.

Shooting Super 8 Today, Part III

All right! You have your Super 8 camera and an idea for a cinematic masterpiece. All you need to do is pop some film into the camera and you’re ready to roll, right?

It’s all so simple until it isn’t

For the first couple decades after Super 8 came about, there weren’t a lot of choices for film.  As a result, many cameras were designed around one now-discontinued film:  40-speed, tungsten-balanced Kodachrome, which was an excellent film.  If your grandparents shot Super 8 film, it was probably K40, and those films are probably still as vibrant as ever in a shoebox in a closet somewhere. Almost half a century later, there are better choices for film available than ever, but not every camera was designed with the future in mind.

The six film speed switches in this camera, circled in red, will detect a wide range of film speeds.
The color balance switch is circled in yellow.

The switches above the gate detect the film speed based on the size of the notch on a Super 8 cartridge.  The number of switches and how close they are together determines what film speeds a camera will recognize.  Some cameras have a lever instead of switches, and the range the lever can travel corresponds to a range of film speeds.  But how do you know which switch equals which film speed?

If you’re lucky, this information will be printed on the camera somewhere, usually inside the film chamber like in the picture above.  It may be listed in the manual – you might find it online if it didn’t come with your camera.  There could also be specifications for your camera online on a site such as the Super 8 Wiki.

http://www.peaceman.de/blog/index.php/super-8-notch-ruler-new-and-improved

If all else fails, someone else has thankfully figured it out already.  If you can’t find any information, then download, print out, and cut out the measuring sheet above, and use the flowchart to deduce the camera’s specifications.  The flowchart might appear brain-melting at first glance, but remember that you’ll only have to go through that process once for each camera you own.

About that bulb switch

If you’re scratching your head about daylight film and tungsten balance, this section is important.  The Super 8 specification was designed to handle color balance in a simple, straightforward manner, but not all cameras implemented it fully.  Here’s how it’s supposed to work:

Color film is designed to render a certain wavelength of light to look “white.”  To most movie film, household light bulbs with tungsten filaments – the kind that give off warm, orange light – look white, hence “tungsten-balanced.”  If tungsten film is shot outside in sunlight, the sunlight looks cold and blue; daylight needs to go through an orange filter before it hits the film to look normal.

This example shows the effect of an 85 filter when shooting tungsten balance in daylight.

Most Super 8 cameras have the orange filter built in.  The particular, standardized color of orange is called Wratten #85. Tungsten-balanced Super 8 cartridges will have a notch near the bottom to tell the camera to use that 85 filter.  The camera doesn’t know when it’s inside or outside, though, so there’s usually a switch on the side to override it.  (Some cameras have a “filter key” which is inserted into a slot in lieu of a switch.)

With tungsten-balanced film in the camera, put the switch in the “sunny” position to engage the 85 filter.  The other position on the switch should look like a light bulb, which disengages the filter for filming indoors – if you leave the orange filter on under tungsten light, everything will look too orange.

Daylight film cartridges don’t have the notch that tungsten-balanced ones do.  When you insert a daylight film cartridge, the cartridge should push a switch inside the camera to automatically disengage the 85 filter, regardless of the position of the bulb switch.  Outdoor sunlight looks correct to daylight film; tungsten light will appear warm and orange, much like tungsten film would if the 85 filter was used indoors.

Above:  Three light bulbs of different color temperatures.  The tungsten bulb is on the left; the “daylight” bulb is on the right.
The bulb on top has an in-between color temperature, and this picture is balanced for the in-between bulb
to illustrate the difference between tungsten and daylight.

Below:  The same image, as it would appear using tungsten-balanced film (left) or daylight-balanced film (right).

   

Super 8 cameras are supposed to automatically compensate for the position of the filter in order to correctly expose the film. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for every camera.  The mix of film types available over the years has resulted in some cameras that don’t behave correctly with the films we have today.  If you downloaded and followed the flowchart above, you should be able to figure out how well your camera sticks to the specification.

If your camera doesn’t handle color balance quite right, you still might be able to make things work.  Instead of using the built-in 85 filter, you could use an accessory 85 filter in front of the lens, leaving the camera always switched to the light bulb. This is sometimes a good idea anyway – internal 85 filters can sometimes be faded or dirty after years of use, and you’ll always know when you’re using the 85 filter because the viewfinder will be orange.

Which film should you actually use?

Within the limits of camera compatibility, choose the film that is most suited to the conditions in which you’re filming.  In bright light, use low-speed film; if you’ll be indoors or in low light, use faster film.

Kodak deserves major credit not just for keeping Super 8 film available, but also for offering their most up-to-date motion picture film stocks in this small-gauge format.  At the time of this writing, there are four film stocks available – one black-and-white reversal film, one color reversal film, and two color negative films.

Reversal Film

Reversal film – you may know it as slide film – offers the most direct, economical Super 8 experience.  After your film is shot and developed, you can thread it into a Super 8 projector and watch the same physical film you ran through the camera, with no additional steps necessary.  There’s nothing to stop you from transferring reversal films to video if you wish, though.

Since reversal films have less exposure leeway than negative films, they’re also useful to test if your camera is exposing properly. Kodak currently offers just one black and white reversal film:

Kodak TRI-X Black & White Reversal Film 7266

ISO 200 (daylight) / 160 (tungsten)

TRI-X Reversal Film 7266 is a high-speed, panchromatic black-and-white film.  Provides rich blacks and excellent contrast… suitable for general interior photography with artificial light.

As of December 12, 2012, Kodak has discontinued Ektachrome 100D color reversal film and will replace it with Vision3 50D color negative film.

Color Negative Films

Negative films offer higher speeds and far greater exposure leeway than reversal films, but these benefits come at a cost:  the Super 8 negative films are more expensive, and you cannot project the film after it’s developed.  The only practical option after shooting is to transfer the film to video, which is an additional expense.  When transferred to video, however, negative films offer much more flexibility to adjust the image than reversal films.

Image courtesy of Kodak

KODAK VISION3 50D Color Negative Film 7203

ISO 50 (daylight) / 12 (tungsten, with 80A filter)

VISION3 50D is a low speed daylight-balanced film offering the world’s finest grain to ensure a pristine, clean image that is full of color and detail.  

Kodak VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 7213

ISO 200 (tungsten) / 125 (daylight, with 85 filter)

VISION3 200T is a 200-speed tungsten film that provides the image structure of a 100-speed film…  [It] performs superbly in both controlled interiors and in challenging high-contrast exteriors.

Kodak VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 7219

ISO 500 (tungsten) / 320 (daylight, with 85 filter)

VISION3 500T gives you noticeably reduced grain in shadows, so you can push the boundaries of exposure further and still get excellent results… What’s more, VISION3 500T Film’s extended highlight latitude gives you greater flexibility when lighting extreme situations, and lets you pull even more detail out of highlights. 

Shooting Super 8 Today, Part II

Technicolor Mark Ten Super 8 camera.  It looks awesome, but does it do everything you want?
Photo by John Kratz.

Do you have a Super 8 camera, but you’re not sure if it works, or if it has the features you need?  Or if you’re shopping for a camera, how do you know if one camera is better than another?  If you already have a Super 8 camera, then this article will help you get to know it better.  If you don’t have a camera yet, by the end you’ll have a lot better idea what to look for.

What’s the Best Super 8 Camera?

There’s a saying about cameras – the best camera is the one you have with you.  Any camera that works is better than no camera at all, and audiences will overlook all kinds of technical imperfections if the content in your movie is compelling.

The long answer is that there is no single best Super 8 camera.  There are some very good high-end cameras, a lot of completely decent cameras, and some that might be better avoided.  A partial list of camera makers would include Bauer, Beaulieu, Bolex, Braun, Canon, Cosina, Elmo, Eumig, Kodak, Konica, Leica, Minolta, Nikon, Rollei, Sankyo, and Yashica, but there are hundreds more.

Some types have distinguishing characteristics:  Nikon cameras are known to have good registration; Canon cameras offer great automatic functions with easy manual overrides; certain Braun and Elmo cameras are exceptionally quiet; Beaulieu and Leica cameras have excellent interchangeable lenses.  No camera has everything, though.  How do you pick the camera that’s right for you from the hundreds that are out there?

Walk before you run

“Does it work?” should be your first question.  Any Super 8 camera you find today is a decades-old electronic device.  Check the contacts in the battery compartment for corrosion.  Many cameras need two sets of batteries – one set for the motor, usually AAs; there’s often a separate battery just for the light meter.  Is that battery still available?  Was the light meter designed for obsolete mercury batteries – 1.35 volts instead of the modern 1.5 volts?  It’s a small difference, but the light meter might need recalibration to be accurate, and that could cost more than you paid for the camera.

The battery compartment of a broken Super 8 camera.  Two obvious signs of corrosion are circled in red.

There are other typical trouble spots.  Many Super 8 cameras have plastic gears inside to run the mechanism, and over time some plastic parts may have deteriorated.  Once you’ve put batteries in, open the film chamber and run the camera.  Does the pull-down claw have regular motion?  Does the wheel on the side of the chamber turn smoothly?  Point the lens toward a light – do you see any fungus or haze inside the lens?  Does the aperture open and close automatically as you point the camera at brighter or darker objects?  While you have the film chamber open, inspect the light seals around the door for any signs of deterioration.

If there are any problems, it’s probably best to find another camera.  If a camera seems loud, that’s not necessarily a problem – Super 8 cameras generally aren’t known for being quiet.  What’s important is that everything works smoothly and consistently; pay attention and trust your intuition.  If you’re buying sight-unseen over the Internet, make sure the seller offers a return policy.

Manual controls are the best feature

If you have more than a passing interest in Super 8, the single most important feature a camera can have will be manual exposure controls.  Auto exposure works well for the most common situations, but the camera doesn’t know when it’s wrong.  You’ll know with experience when to trust the camera, when to override it… and when it’s technically doing the right thing, but you want something different.

Manual controls – in different places on different cameras.

It’s the little things that make a difference

Given the sheer number of companies that jumped into the Super 8 arena, huge diversity among the cameras is a given.  Which features are actually useful?

Variable frame rates:  Every Super 8 camera will film at 18 frames per second, the silent movie speed that gives you 3 minutes and 20 seconds per cartridge.  If you want a more professional look, or to mix Super 8 with footage from other formats, look for a camera that offers the 24 fps sound speed, which gives 2 and a half minutes per each cartridge.

Many cameras will offer additional speeds – slow motion, up to 54 fps; sometimes 9 or 12 fps for fast motion; or one frame at a time for animation.  Having options is always a good thing.

Through-the-lens light meter:  Automatic exposure, at the heart of all Super 8 cameras, requires an accurate light meter.  The best light meters measure the light that’s coming through the lens.  Watch out for cameras that use selenium cells, which look like a honeycomb or a grid on the front of the camera.  While selenium meters don’t need batteries, they’re only found on the oldest Super 8 cameras, and aren’t always functional or accurate.

Reflex viewfinders:  Just as with light meters, the best viewfinders let you look through the camera’s lens.  These are called a reflex finder, which use either a beam splitter or mirror reflex.  A mirror reflex viewfinder shows the most accurate representation of what you’ll actually be filming, just like a 35mm SLR.  The drawback is that you can’t see what you’re filming at the moment of exposure; mirror reflex viewfinders flicker at the same rate as the film speed.  Mirror reflex viewfinders are uncommon.

A beam splitter reflex viewfinder system.  Image taken from Nikon R8 Super Zoom promotional brochure.

Beam-splitter viewfinders are the most common type on Super 8 cameras, and offer a continuous view through the lens.  They work by diverting a small amount of light that would otherwise go toward the film.  The camera will take the difference into account for automatic exposure, so the only downside is that they can be a little darker than reflex finders.

Shutters – standard, XL, and variable:  Remember the shutter animation from part I?  Well, it gets a little more complicated. Most Super 8 cameras have a standard shutter opening, usually around 150º or 180º, which works well in most conditions.

Starting in the early 1970s, some Super 8 cameras began to feature an XL shutter for filming in eXisting Light.  Typically between 200º and 230º, the longer exposure interval was combined with faster lenses to enable filming in dimmer conditions than possible with a standard shutter.  As usual, there’s a trade off – the longer exposure time leads to blurrier motion, which can seem less sharp if the camera or subject is moving.

The workings of the Canon 1014XL-S shutter control, from the Canon 1014XL-S manual.

Finally, a few cameras offer a variable shutter which can be changed from smaller to larger openings, even while filming.  This offers the best of both worlds – though it’s also one more setting to check before you start shooting!

Variable shutter control on a Braun Nizo camera.  Image taken from 1973 Nizo brochure.

Other features:  There are other minor features of more or less usefulness that you’ll find on some cameras.  The coolest bonus feature you might find is an intervalometer, which lets you make time-lapse movies.

Minolta offered serious time-lapse accessories.  Other manufacturers built simple intervalometers into certain cameras.
Images taken from Minolta Autopak-8 D series manual.

Some features are practically useless:  There’s in-camera cross-fading (which can sometimes jam in the camera, since Super 8 cartridges weren’t designed for it), a tape head for recording sound (sound cartridges are long gone), and a lid on top that opens for 200-foot cartridges (also long gone).  However, all those features were reserved for premium models at the time they were made, so if you find a camera that has one or more of them, it’s probably a decent camera.

Do your research

All Super 8 cameras perform the same basic purpose, and differ mostly in secondary features.  Today, you can choose from every Super 8 camera ever made.  Sites like the Super 8 Wiki have information on a huge number of cameras, and you can find feedback about practically any camera from people who’ve used them extensively through your favorite internet search engine – something that wasn’t possible when Super 8 cameras were new.  Decide what features you need – or don’t need – and go find your camera!

The author’s Super 8 camera, covered in reminders to help during shooting.

Camera manuals in this entry were found at apecity.com.

Shooting Super 8 Today, Part I

Why shoot Super 8 film today? 

With the ever-growing variety of ways to capture moving images today, why choose Super 8?  Because it’s fun and exciting! There are plenty of logical reasons – for instance, it’s the least expensive way to shoot analog motion picture film; and like Minox film, the diminutive size of Super 8 film infuses your images with a unique texture – but justifications can be made for any format.  If you’re inspired by a creative medium, what other excuse do you need?  If you’re excited about filming in Super 8, read on.

Technical information is less important than what you put in front of the camera. 

The goal of these articles is to provide a complete introduction to shooting Super 8 for anyone who wants to but otherwise has no idea how to do it.  It’s going to get very technical – this is so you can know what is happening when you’re filming, why it’s happening, and how to adapt it, change it, or repeat it. If you have some knowledge of photography already, it will help quite a bit.

All of what follows is meant to help you get better results out of every film cartridge, but keep in mind that technical knowledge is the bottom of the iceberg.  Your audience can’t see the knowledge in your head – they can only see what you put in front of the camera!

How movie cameras work

To state the obvious, a motion picture is just a series of still pictures taken in rapid succession.  When a series is displayed in the same rapid succession, we perceive the illusion of motion.

Film cameras achieve this by moving a strip of film through the camera in a repeated intermittent motion.  The film is advanced by what’s called a pull-down claw, which grabs onto a sprocket hole in the film, moves the film into position, then retracts.  The film then needs to be stopped in place in a consistent manner, which is called registration.  Most Super 8 cameras have the pull-down claw stay still for a brief moment before it retracts, which registers the film well enough.  Once the film is steady, a spinning half circle – the shutter – moves out of the way to expose the film to light, taking a single picture.  As the shutter spins back in front of the film, the whole process repeats – many times per second.

Movie camera shutter animation

There’s more on the Wikipedia page for movie cameras.

Because the spinning motion of the shutter is synchronized with the rest of the mechanism, the amount of time that the shutter is open depends on how fast the film moves.  A typical movie camera has the shutter open for half of each cycle, so if the camera is advancing film at 18 frames per second (the “silent film” speed), the shutter speed would be 1/36th of a second.  The 24 f.p.s. “sound movie” frame rate equals a 1/48th-second shutter speed.

There are two things to take away from this.  First, the time you get from each cartridge is determined by the frame rate.  18 fps will give you 3 minutes and 20 seconds, while 24 fps works out to 2 and a half minutes.  Second, shutter speed is not a practical means of controlling exposure, because it’s generally locked to the frame rate.  Once you’re filming, there are only two ways to adjust your exposure – by changing the aperture, or by changing how much light is in front of the lens.

2K fresnel light with barn doors

Sometimes you need a few of these.

Super 8 makes things simple

If the information above seemed dry, that’s because it was.  Obviating the complexities of movie cameras to amateur filmmakers was Kodak’s goal when they created the Super 8 format in 1965.  Kodak achieved that goal with an ingenious film cartridge which sets an automatic exposure system when the film is inserted into a camera.

The business end of a Super 8 cartridge.

A Super 8 cartridge is entirely self contained, with the unexposed film (in the feed side) pre-threaded to wind back into the cartridge (into the take-up side) after it is exposed.  The notch near the top of the cartridge indicates the film speed, and the one on the bottom tells the camera about the film’s color balance.  Since the camera will know this information as soon as the cartridge is pushed in, you only need to flip a switch to tell the camera if you’re outside in sunlight or inside under household lights, and then you can start filming immediately.

It’s that simple?  Can I go shoot a movie now?

Not so fast.  It’s true that shooting Super 8 is simple and easy, but certain parts can get really complicated; that’s why there are three more articles in this series!  Part II will discuss how to choose and use Super 8 cameras; Part III will discuss the film stocks available from Kodak and address color balance and camera compatibility; finally, Part IV will wrap up and address common movie-making questions – including any you might leave in the comments below.

A Super 8 film by the author.

What’s New on the Blue Moon?

In celebration of Portland’s second full moon in the month of August, we at Blue Moon Camera and Machine would like to update you on a few things that have happened since the last blue moon.

 

 

But before we get into the recent past, we’d like to talk a bit about our beginnings. Jake Shivery and Josey Peterson opened Blue Moon Camera and Machine on December 1, 2001. The store soon grew enough for the two to hire their first employee, Zeb Andrews, on September 1, 2002.

 

Josey, Zeb, and Jake

 

Thanks to a strong base of loyal customers and the support of the local business and artist communities, Blue Moon Camera and Machine has continued to grow and flourish into the twelve-person strong business that it is today. But eleven years after Jake and Josey’s grand opening, and almost ten years after Zeb’s first day, the store was beginning to outgrow its original design. And so, in spring 2012, a renovation was in order. Some of you will remember that we closed our doors this spring, and reopened them a month later with a whole new look.

 

The fearless Blue Moon contractors, Aren and John

 

Our staff and contractors labored day and night to give the store a complete turn-around in look and style. It wasn’t always easy, and it wasn’t always comfortable, and it certainly wasn’t always dry, but at the end of the four weeks the results proved to be well worth the toil.

 

The store now proudly wears tin ceilings and hardwood floors, pristine shelves to hold all those pristine cameras, and even skylights in the back lab to keep the production team from turning into sun-fearing vampires. Not that we have anything against vampires, but if a mirror can’t see them, will a camera lens be able to?

 

Blue Moon Camera and Machine's reopening party

 

We were excited to reopen our doors and celebrate Blue Moon’s new ‘do with our customers and supporters at a reopening party on March 10, 2012. Our customers came to party with us again on August 4th to celebrate the fifth annual Blue Moon Camera and Machine staff show, and we’ll hopefully see some of you all tomorrow to celebrate Zeb’s anniversary and Kendall’s departure into academia. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past blue moons, it’s that our customers know how to show us a good time.

 

So thanks for the past eleven years, everyone, and we’ll see you on the next blue moon with another exciting update from behind the curtain.

 

Drinking With Jake (Round Two) – Blue Mitchell

Next in a series in which Jake Shivery and a guest get pickled and talk photography. Blue Mitchell is a Portland based mixed media artist.  He is the co-founder of Plates to Pixels and the founder of Diffusion magazine.  The fourth edition of Diffusion hits the stands this summer.
Blue interviewed Jake a couple of years ago, for Plates to Pixels.  Now, with relish, Jake turns the tables on his pal.

Who:  Blue Mitchell, editor of Diffusion Magazine
Where:  Jake’s Garage
When:  May, 2012
What:  Bulleit Rye straight up, beer back

Jake:  Hi, Blue, and thanks for coming.
Blue: Thanks for having me over.  This is nice.

JS:  You’ve conducted a lot of interviews before.  I’m new at this.  Maybe you have some advice on how to conduct interviews.
BM:  I never get the chance to sit down like this – I’m always doing email interviews.  I don’t know – I guess I always start with the generic – background, art and photography, how did you get into the field, that sort of thing.  The questions can get more complex when I get to know the artist more, but that’s always where I start.  Sometimes I’m just at a loss – I get fresh questions from other people.

JS:  Well, that’s not very helpful.  I was counting on stealing interview techniques from someone with a lot of experience.
BM:  We’ll see how that goes.

JS:  Hmph.  Fine – what’s cooking?
BM:  This time of year, I’m buried in Diffusion.  There’s little time for anything else.  I’ve been lecturing a bit, and showing here and there.  I’ve got some art happening on the side – stuff that’s more playful. The serious stuff takes more time.

JS:  You have some long range projects simmering?
BM:  Always.  I’ve been working on “Mythos” for several years.  Since 2006, really.  It’s a pretty simple concept – crafting my own mythologies visually.

JS:  Oh, yeah.  That sounds simple.  You have an example?
BM:  One of the later ones was “The Journey Begins” – it’s landscape work, but all shot on a blanket in the studio.  Then I combined that with a real landscape outside of Bend.  Then it’s an acrylic lift on wood – it’s very warm.

JS:  This is part of a series?  How many in the series?
BM: That have been shown?  Probably twenty or so.  Maybe I should say ‘twenty or less’.

JS: Where have you been showing?
BM: My first solo gallery show was at Camerawork in 2007.  Before that, I was in group shows in a few different venues, sometimes with photos, sometimes with found objects, sometimes with some collage of both.  Since then I’ve shown at Newspace Center for Photography, Lightbox in Astoria and a few other galleries around the country. The Light Factory annual juried show is the one I’m most proud of outside of Portland.

JS:  Are you actively submitting?
BM:  Not really, not right now.  It’s been mostly requests.  That’s very nice.

JS:  Oh, yes.  It’s always nice to be asked.
BM:  I had a gig as a visiting artist at University of Texas in San Antonio and at Amarillo College. I got to see a lot of really strong student work.  In San Antonio I had the chance to visit the MFA students studios and look at installations.  It was great.  In Amarillo I did a workshop and lecture, about 60 people showed up for the lecture, I was impressed. They also kept me out ’til 2:30 in the morning.  Suffice it to say that they showed me a good time in Amarillo.

JS:  When you lecture for students, what do you discuss?
BM:  Generally, it’s about my experience in publishing.  My message is always:  ‘Create your own way’.  And networking.  You have to have good people around you.  There’s no way for you to know everything. On this Texas trip though, it was mostly about my journey as an artist, followed by the professional things I do now.

JS:  You’ve also had some experience as a juror and a reviewer.  Photolucida, and so forth.  When you’re looking at other people’s work, what are you looking for?
BM:  Stuff that surprises me.  Most people that look at photos a lot see a lot of repetition.  We’re all looking for a unique take and a strong artist voice.  I try to not be narrow-minded about our medium, and I’m looking for artists that agree.  If I’ve been watching an artist for a while, then I’m looking for the evolution.  I want to see what’s occurred since they started – how they’ve changed.

JS:  Any difference between what you’re looking for as a reviewer and what you’re looking for to publish in Diffusion?
BM:  Not really.  I’m watching a number of people, and I’m always looking for new folks, too.  With the magazine, we try to strike a nice balance with unknowns and emerging talents and well-established, well-represented artists.  Diffusion is a little different, because with each issue, we’re following a theme of some sort.

JS:  Diffusion Four is coming out soon [as of this writing].  You pursued a Kickstarter project for a special edition.
BM:  Kickstarter was great. We really hit the ‘sweet spot’ where we paid for all of our fees and made our goal.  There are so many amazingly generous people out there – both the folks who donated money and all the artists who helped with the donation goods.  I was blown away by the positive response.  This has enabled us to do our first special – a limited edition, hardbound version.  I’m pretty excited about it.

JS:  With four issues under you belt, how do you feel about your magazine?
BM:  I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m learning.  I’m learning how to deal with the stress and the pressure.  I’m sure you’ve noticed that we’re not keeping a very regular publishing schedule.  I’m learning that it’s OK to back it up, if that makes it good.  I’m blessed with a lot of people around me that make it all work.  It’s getting its legs under it, and I think it’s really evolving into something good.  I’m learning what works and what doesn’t.

JS:  How do you view Diffusion in the landscape of current periodicals?
BM:  As an annual, it’s limited.  We have a good international following, but not a lot of submissions from foreign countries.  The exhibitions are important – they’re one of my favorite parts.  I want more of everything – I want it bigger, more global.  And more exhibitions.

JS: You hung the last exhibition in Atlanta, much to the chagrin of your Portland artists.  I, for one, want you to be proud of being a Portland-based operation.
BM:  And I am.  I am.  Ultimately, the magazine is all Portland blood.  We get amazing support from this community, and I’m well aware of what we can do here that we couldn’t do other places.  Like I say – Portland blood.  Just not Portland-centric.  I want the shows to go on the road, that’s why we went to Atlanta.  We’re looking forward to a show in Victoria, BC in July, again in Portland in 2013, and Verve Gallery in New Mexico in 2014.

JS:  What else in the future?
BM:  Ultimately, I’d like to publish books.

JS: What do you have in mind for books?
BM:  Well, that’s what’s still up for debate.  Initially, I was thinking I’d like to do monographs – now I’m not so sure – we’ll see.  I think some other things might come before monographs.

JS:  Like what?
BM: Well, I’m interested in writing.  It’s the book form, after all – I think it should have more writing.

JS:  You mean more writing and less photography?
BM:  Well, yeah.  That’d be an interesting way to start.  The only thing I currently have brewing is conversations with artists about their photography and opening a dialogue about what their photography is.  How do they use photography in other art?  When does it become not-photography and becomes something else?  This is largely a medium issue.  Taking photography so far beyond an actual 2D photo, you know?  Is it photo-real painting, or mixed media or collage – is the photo just a piece of the overall image?  These kinds of questions lead to what photography really is – this subject really interests me.  I’ve been finding that it interests quite a few other people, too.  Maybe this is a book – initially, I was considering a special issue of Diffusion, but more about writing.

JS:  That’s our segue to the big question of the evening.  Process vs. content.  How do you view what’s most important?
BM: Are you talking about Diffusion?

JS:  Well, sure.  But maybe we’re also talking about Blue.
BM:  I think when I started Diffusion, it was perceived to be a lot about process, but for me it’s been an equal balance between process and content.  We do our group showcases – and these are really about a theme and a process.  In this section, I really want to show as many interesting processes as I can as well as a solid concept.  The issue with concept in this case is that you only have the one, single concept  that you’re trying to hold together.  A lot of different processes means that we can dive really deeply into this concept, open it up to a lot of different artists’ visions.

Process is important to me – that’s what we spend a lot of time in Diffusion talking about.  I find it very interesting to talk to artists in depth about how they do what they do.  But we also pay attention to why they do what they do.  I really feel strongly that the best work is the good combination of both sides – both concept and process.

There’s the whole gamut of photography out there – we see a lot series where the process is great, but the concept isn’t really there.  Or, you know, maybe your final presentation is lacking, but the concept is so strong that it makes up for it.  I’m interested in both ends of the spectrum.  I’m really interested in the middle, too, of course.

Did I even answer your question? [laughs] It’s possible that I didn’t even answer it.  Could just be more of my artspeak…

Let’s put it another way.  The stuff that I like on my walls isn’t really about process, necessarily, it’s more about the image, but when it comes to a body of work, it has to have both for me.  Photography for me is more about an emotional response – more on the feeling level, and less on an intellectual level.  The intellectual is not as important to me.  Visual impact is very important to me.

There’s a lot of photographers out there whose work is more challenging – social commentary or political commentary – that’s not really the stuff that I do or what’s in my magazine.  Having said that, I want to emphasize the order:  It’s always about the content first.

JS:  So, what’s better for you – a strong visual image that came off an iPhone, or a very heavy process- oriented thing, something with a great story behind it?  Let’s see – this guy is deep sea diving with a panoramic pinhole sheet film camera and one leg on fire while being chased by sharks – but he takes a boring photograph.
BM:  [laughs] I get that.  We see it all the time.  For me, it’s got to be about the strongest visual.  The best content.

JS:  Right, well, one argument regards an image’s value if you have to be standing behind the audience, describing the process.  Is it still a strong picture if it requires textual reference?  Can it still be a substantial photograph?
BM:  OK, with that in mind, process always come second.  I live in this digital world where I see the image, but outside of the context of the actual piece.  I’m really about the finished piece – the final execution.  I love going to the reviews, because I actually get to see the prints.  This gives me a much better perspective on what the artist is doing.  I don’t have to know the process, as long as I enjoy the print.  I like the tangible object – I want to know that it’s interesting in real life.

I like to see the artist in the print.  I want to know that they have some kind of thumb print left behind on the work itself.  A pure quality thing – I want to see the artists’ hand.

The quality of the magazine has only gone up since I’ve started seeing more work in person.  This is really important, since we’re doing an exhibition in addition to the publication.  I have to enjoy it on the wall as much as I enjoy it when we try to reproduce it.

JS: You’re ducking my question.  If the thing can not survive without text, is it still valuable?
BM:  I know a few artists who don’t have a lot of concept in their work – but their work is very striking, and I feel that that is just as worthy as a high-concept piece.  I just feel like it’s in a different category.  Maybe they’re not working on concept, but they might be putting together a beautiful image that really makes you stop in a gallery.  It doesn’t matter what it is, whether it’s the artist statement is needed or not,  if I’m engaged in it.

My personal work is obviously all about process.  Even when I’m starting with a concept, it’s still always back to process.  And the image becomes stronger through the more labor-intensive process.
Sometimes I go too far – I’m sort of known for over-processing, and now it’s not as interesting – it’s got too much going on and it’s too busy.

JS:  Your work is pretty well received, I think.  I mean, you’re being asked to show. You’re being asked to go to Texas.  That sounds pretty good.
BM:  That was great.  My fondest memory of the trip was during my lecture at Amarillo College.  There’s an old timer sitting in the room, and I don’t know who he is, but it’s obvious that he’s been around.  I found out later that he was a successful photographer in Aperture, Scott Hyde.  I’m showing my slide show, and because it’s for a college, I focused on my whole body of work, dating back to when I was a college freshman.  I was explaining why I switched from film to photography.  I knew immediately that photography was something I could do myself – all me – I didn’t need a whole crew of people to follow me around.  Film was hard for me because of all that.  It’s so involved with other people, it’s hard to just do your own thing.  With photo, you can do it right away, you can still have narrative, but with more immediate results.  I just wanted to create interesting things to look at – they didn’t have to move around.

Anyway, that’s an aside.  Let me get back – the first slide I show is from my really early work, this 3200 speed, super grainy shot of a woman exhaling from her cigarette.  And this gentleman gasped.  On the first slide.

I was like “OK, I’m done.  I don’t need to show any other slides.  That’s it.”  I don’t even know who this guy is, but that gasp – that’s like the crescendo of my career so far.  That one moment makes it all worth it.  Emotional impact.

JS:  Interaction with the audience is important.  I think all of us often overlook the idea that photography is basically an exhibition craft.  Eventually, you have to know that someone is responding.  That your work is carrying, like you say, emotional impact.
BM: I mean it happens to me a lot, but I rarely gasp at a photo.

JS:  What we’re all after is some sense of recognition.
BM:  And it comes with trusting the source.  With this guy, I could tell he’d seen a lot of photography in his life – it’s quite a validation.  It just makes me wonder if I should have quit with the early work.

JS:  I see a lot of early work which is great – I mean, just great.  And then the person in question gets more “serious” and it all just goes to hell.  What they were able to make before, just the sheer beauty, now it’s all lost in trying to figure out f5.6 or f8.
BM:  I think a lot of people work much better when they’re strictly intuitive.

JS:  Let’s do a bit more about Blue Mitchell, the dude.  Tell me about Montana.
BM:  Montana?  That’s fun.  I was born in Montana, but then we moved to Northern California before I could even remember, but my cousins were still in Forsyth.  So I have some memories.  My family’s bread and butter was iron ore, they ran a mining company.  We moved back to Montana from 1st through 4th grade, and then to Idaho, and then back to California.  My parents moved a lot.  I didn’t actually wind up back in Montana myself until I was an adult and went to Montana State in ’97.  I did, however, continually visit my family in the summers.

JS:  You were in the Army.
BM:  I was in the Marines for a while.  Very brief – shy of two years.  It was kind of weird for me – one of the hippie kids who had to have his head shaved.  A proverbial path in the road – I wanted a major change, and I gave myself a couple of options.  The marines seemed like the most challenging one, but also the most stable one.  Getting paid and getting college money, so that was good, but it was really hard for me mentally.  Pretty shocking, really – I mean, my dad was a marine, and when it shocked him, I knew it might not be my personality trait to be joining the marine corp.  That said, he supported me 100%.

My experience there was pretty limited. All I really needed, Jake, was boot camp.  I could have been done with it all after that.  Just send me through hell on earth – boot camp – and that’s enough.  For me, living in paradise and then going to the military, it was quite a shock to the system.  Not hell on earth, I guess, I mean, I never saw combat, so I should check myself there.  Nonetheless, the physical training was ridiculous, but it was good for me mentally – and I came out a totally different person – a new self confidence that I didn’t have before.  It  was hard, but I got more out of it than I lost.

I mean, I was only in there for two years, but I have so many great stories.  Now, years go by and I have nothing near the stories I got from that time in my life.

JS:  Your career with the marines was pretty brief.
BM:  Yeah.  The short story is, I got in a car wreck right after boot camp.  I fell asleep at the wheel and flipped my car six times, front over back – it was pretty traumatic.  I was lucky – I got ejected through the moon roof, and I lacerated my elbow, broke my wrist and pelvic bone.  [Blue shows off his elbow scar.]

JS:  That’s all you got?  You flipped a car six times and that’s all you got?
BM:  I was lucky, the only injuries incurred were from the pavement.  Thrown completely clear of the car and then landed on the interstate- the car stopped in a ditch.

So I ended up, after a long period of time, getting a medical discharge.  In the meantime, I was in a medical platoon.  When I left, I was actually platoon leader.  Which was ridiculous – this hippie kid in charge of 50 marines.  This is where a lot of the stories come from.  I put up a good facade of a marine.  It wasn’t like an actual heroic marine.  People compare me to other marines, but they had much different experiences.  I mean, I never left Camp Pendleton.  I didn’t go to war, I just went through the system.  More of an appearance, really.

JS:  What brought you to Portland?
BM:  Living in Montana, I was looking for an art school.   I moved to Seattle but I was having all of my fun in Portland.  Much more interesting things seemed to be happening here.  I kicked around with a couple of state schools, but eventually decided it was time to suck it up and just go to art school.  I scraped together my portfolio, and spent three years at the Oregon College of Art & Craft.  Since then, I luckily landed a graphic design job – it isn’t my degree, but I’ve been doing it more or less since high school.

JS:  So, you had the day job, and time to start your projects?
BM:  Yep.  Started Diffusion in 2008 – the first year of publication was 2009.

JS:  And there was Plates to Pixels before that.  Let’s touch on that.
BM:  At the time there weren’t a lot of on-line galleries.  That was really my first venture into promoting other people’s work.  Learning about marketing and educating myself on the photo industry.  I worked at the gallery at OCAC, and I really enjoyed the gallery process – bringing it in, putting it together, hanging the work.  The on-line gallery was a way for me to flex that muscle..  In reality, it was a low-risk way for me to enter into curating.  I treated it like a normal gallery, and this was right at the heart of the “big dichotomy”.  Digital was so big then, and then there was this resurgence of alternate process work, somewhat because digital was growing.  Now we have these polarized mediums, both growing at the same time.  For me, I was embracing them both.  These things are both valid – it doesn’t make sense that there’s even a discussion anymore – it’s just a matter of taste and preference.

JS:  So you waded into this with a brand new on-line gallery?
BM:  I wanted Plates to Pixels to become the nexus between the two, or all of the above.  A lot of technology-based digital work, and balanced with analog work – this became the big theme.

JS:  You keep at that project.
BM:  It works nicely as a side project.  I keep it going because I love it.  It allows me to do different things than Diffusion, and also more frequently.  In the beginning it was very challenging, but I found my feet in it pretty quickly.  Got it where I want it, and I’m happy.  But, it’s not ultimately fulfilling – I wanted a new thing, and so now there’s Diffusion.

JS:  And here we are.  You got anything else?
BM:  Good lord, isn’t that enough?
JS:  Just say ‘uncle’.
BM:  Oh, no.  I can keep going.
JS:  Yeah, but I’m not sure I can.  Just say ‘good night’.
BM:  Good night.
JS: Thank you, and good night.


Blue Mitchell’s Personal Website:  http://bluemitchell.com/

‘Roid week 2012: celebrating the instant…. right now.

Photo by Peter Carlson

 

Forget Poladroid.  Turn off Fauxlaroid.  This week is the time to celebrate instant film itself, the original form of instant gratification.  While Polaroid no longer produces film for our stalwart Land Cameras, SX70s and One Shot 600s; instant film is far from dead and gone.  These days those Automatic Land Cameras and polaroid backs for your medium format cameras can be filled with film made by Fuji (available in both 100 ISO color and 3000 ISO b&w).  Want to dust off your SX70 and 600 cameras?  A not-as-crazy-as-they-seem company in the Netherlands by the name of The Impossible Project can help you there.  If you pay a visit to their site, you can even take a virtual tour of the building where the film is made.  But that is not all!  Instant Film is not just about recycling those old cameras from the 70s.  Pick up a Fuji Instax, either in the wide or mini format, and you can get a fresh and modern start to your instant adventures.  There are still two days left for ‘Roid Week 2012, so to give you a bit of an inspirational boost, we figured we would share some of our own instant adventures.  We hope you enjoy.  If this modest selection doesn’t quite scratch the itch, try out the “Roid Week 2012 Flickr group.  Also, browse through Instax Gratification, a Fuji Instax-centric Tumblr group.

Photo by David Paulin

Photo by JaNae Hagel

Photo by Wendi Andrews

Photo by Peter Carlson

Photo by Nancy Guidry

Photo by Darcy Sharpe-Meade

Photo by Faulkner Short

Photo by Zeb Andrews

 

Why film?

A 30 minute Hasselblad exposure of star trails behind the St. Johns bridge.

 

During the course of my daily photographic life, both personally and professionally, it is not uncommon to hear one or more of the following comments or questions:

Is that really a film camera?
Does it work?
You can still get film for that?
I thought film was extinct.
Why would you want to shoot film?

Why indeed?  And why, in this age of digital cameras does a place like Blue Moon Camera and Machine insist on selling film cameras?  The reasons are varied, but here goes.

Perhaps the largest reason lies in the aim of the work we do here at the store.  Blue Moon Camera’s intentions aren’t limited to selling film and equipment to intrepid photographers, but perhaps more importantly to provide them with information, knowledge, and shared experience.  Our aim is to give photographers the tools they need to be better photographers.  To give them options, room to roam and explore.  Not to tell them they have to make pictures a certain way, with certain equipment.  Nor is it our goal to convince them that the more expensive the equipment, the newer or the flashier, the better their photos will be.  So, we provide the availability of film cameras as options.  As there is no shortage of businesses out there willing to trumpet the advantages of digital cameras (and there are several advantages), there are now relatively few businesses who make it a priority to remind us of the advantages to film photography (and there are several advantages).  This is where Blue Moon Camera comes in.

A composite image made from 11 Holga exposures

 

The worlds of film and digital photography has come to be seen by many as an “either or” approach.  This is a very limited fashion in which to approach photography.  Over a century has been spent tinkering and perfecting the art of the film camera, and that progression is still continuing.  Over that span of time an amazing number of incredibly well-designed, well-built, film cameras have been made.  Think of the Leica M series or the Hasselblad.  Don’t forget the Speed Graphic, Noblex, Nikon F, F2, F3, F4, F5,  and F6.  Heck, even throw in the Pentax K1000 or the Contax AX.  The Kodak Retina IIIC? A Deardorf 8×10? Fuji G617?  The list goes on and on… and on.  Chances are some out there know some of these names.  They are all incredible cameras, capable of producing incredible images in many cases at much higher resolution images than even the top DSLRs.  Yet so many of these cameras have been forgotten, left behind, discarded.  Blue Moon Camera therefore makes it a point to remind photographers, to educate our customers – not to convert them per se – to show them the range of options available.  And many of our customers do embrace aspects of both film and digital, as it should be.  Not an either or, but a choosing of the best tool for the job at hand.

Personally, I have begun to tell people that I change cameras for the same reasons many photographers change lenses.  Want a sweeping, epic landscape?  You grab that wide angle lens, right?.  Making a portrait of a friend?  That mild telephoto is the likely choice.  And so on.  I have something like nine different film cameras that rotate through my daily use.  Do I want square images with a bit of a primitive feel or dreamier look?  I grab my Holga.  Do I want to work with long exposures and more impressionistic images?  The pinhole camera comes out of the bag.  Do I want super sharp, high resolution images where the eye can feast on all the little details?  I go with the Pentax 6×7, my Hasselblad or even a Graflex Speed Graphic 4×5.  I think you see where I am going with this.  It is about having options.    Give a skilled carpenter only a hammer to work with and he can still do an awful lot of work, but give him a screwdriver, a drill, a ruler, a level and an adze (why not an adze, after all) and he can do far, far more.

I’ll give you one last thing to ponder.  In a world where every DSLR is a miniature technical marvel, and most photographers are using one,  it has suddenly become incredibly easy to make technically well-executed images.  So easy in fact you generally just have to know how to turn the camera on and it’s on-board computer will do the rest of the work.  And since most photographers are using the same type of equipment and are producing images of equal technical achievement, unless a photographer is particularly crafty or imaginative, they are going to produce images that look much like everyone else’s images.  Here is where film cameras come in.  Imagine you have spent your whole photographic life on a DSLR and then someone hands you a Yashica TLR.  Your approach to photography is going to be revolutionized.  Suddenly, instead of thinking composition in terms of a rectangle, you are working with a square.  Instead of operating with an eye-level prism, you have a waist-level finder.  You can no longer change ISO on the fly, so you have to plan ahead.  Nor do you get to check a histogram to see if you exposed correctly, you have to learn to trust your own experience and intuition.  Additionally, film looks different than digital; the color palette is different from that which you were accustomed.  In light of all these differences, you learn and grow as a photographer – and what you learn even can be applied back to your DSLR, changing how you go about using that camera too.

Film is readily available.  A quick spin around the internet will demonstrate that.  There are dozens of different types of film out there, from subminiature to ultra large format, color negative to black and white infrared.  Even more importantly, not only is film still available, there are very important reasons to grab a film camera off the shelf instead of the digital.  Ultimately though, it is not an either or decision, and neither does Blue Moon Camera take that approach.  We are more interested in putting tools into your toolbox, not in taking them out.

An image from a homemade omniscope pinhole camera.

Whither the School Darkroom?

These days, I am frequently asked about the necessity and viability of the traditional school darkroom. As you might expect, I am a vehement supporter of keeping these facilities intact, functional and accessible to students from all walks of life. Working against the conventional wisdom that “film is dead”, I thought it might be helpful to discuss some of my arguments for why schools of all levels have a vested interest in maintaining the traditional educational darkroom.

Budget and Amortization

Let’s get right to the point and start with the money. For the sake of this argument, let us assume that there is a still a line item on a school’s budget for photography. The decision must be made to either initiate a darkroom or replace it with its digital corollary.

Simply put, darkrooms are cheaper to set up. Much of the equipment and ephemera may be had used at very low cost. Even better, there is the donation model – darkroom gear has historically proliferated throughout communities and much of it is currently unused in attics, basements and garages. Equipment of this kind frequently falls into the category of “too nice to pitch, too big to keep” and is often owned by folks very anxious to have it owned by someone else. Many private citizens are very sympathetic to the cause of education, both public and private, and would be thrilled to have their previously used darkroom equipment put to use in a student setting.

Even if donations are not forthcoming or convenient, there is a tremendous inventory of used equipment in stores such as ours, available at a fraction of the price of purchasing their brand new counterparts. Obviously, we’re looking to sell gear, and so are many others. For dealers, setting up special deals for school systems is generally a commercial no-brainer.

Photo courtesy Don O'Brien via Wikimedia Commons

We respond to questions regarding this issue with some regularity.  Is used equipment viable? Can school systems really make better use of used darkroom gear than they could from new computers? And how about a computer lab on the used (or donation) model?

Used darkroom equipment is almost always a safe bet. Unlike other used equipment, darkroom machines – principally enlargers and timers – hold up very well over the long haul. Remember, these are devices which largely sit in one place and perform repetitive, low-impact tasks. They are simple, easy to fix, and generally built to last.

Computers are expensive to begin with, and the viability of a used computer is very questionable. We are all intimately familiar with the usefulness of a ten (or even five) year old computer system. The technology has changed (and will change) so much, so quickly, that there is little reason to build a computer that will last more than a few years. Computers are complex, almost impossible to repair, and built to be replaced at regular intervals.

Which is a good segue to my next major point:

Amortization: my new favorite word, especially in this context. The fine arts budget of any school system is very precious and must be spent with the utmost care. Setting up a darkroom properly at the beginning of a program can provide students with years and years of steady and reliable service. The cost of this initial expenditure may be amortized over the very long term.

Compare this to replacing digital workstations at very regular intervals, and only being able to amortize the expense of a computer over a few semesters. Not only are darkrooms cheaper to set up, but they have a much longer useful lifespan over which to spread the expense.

But aren’t darkrooms obsolete? No, and this is part of the change we need to make in the thinking of the school boards. Very, very old enlargers do as well today as they did when they were brand new. Again, simple tasks performed by durable machines extend their working life cycles to “indefinite”. Not only do they not become obsolete, but they are actually the antidote to the whole concept of obsolescence.

Photo courtesy Frank Gosebruch via Wikimedia Commons

Much the opposite, the technology which drives computers has always been, by its nature, transitory and fleeting. Trying to instruct a student using a five year computer with four year old software is the actual definition of instruction in obsolescence.

Which brings us to materials. There is certainly an expense incurred with the replenishment of darkroom chemistry and paper. Often times, this may be spread out among the student body, and paid for using a per-use formula. In this mode, the materials expense per student is kept more consistent with the individual student’s actual output.

Even if the school is footing the entire bill, it is still cheaper to fill an order for consumables every semester than it is to replace the entire hardware infrastructure every few years.

There is a broader philosophical argument, as well – permanence. Unlike computer-based output, film-based products are, by nature, much more archival. Many strides have been made towards the permanence issue of the digital work flow, but effectively this is still a game of catch-up with film, which has always had a built-in and provable archival nature. The BW negatives which I processed in high school are every bit as printable as negatives which I produced last week. High school, by the way, was a long time ago.

Accessibility and Craft

Now for the good stuff – Photography is an art form. One of the most important components of any education in visual arts is the actual facility. Students must be allowed access to methods and techniques that they might not be exposed to otherwise. Specifically, nearly every student has access to a computer, probably even in his or her bedroom, but how many have access to a darkroom? How will the student even know if they have a proclivity for traditional printing if they are never allowed to try?

Offering darkroom classes allows for access which is not redundant. No darkrooms means that students are exposed only to computers, both at school and at home. Setting up digital labs, especially to the exclusion of their traditional counterparts, acts to hammer home modern, homogenous technique and puts more distance between the young artist and the fundamentals of his or her craft.

Darkroom instruction reflects a mature technology going back more than a century. While there are things which a computer will do which an enlarger will not, ultimately the bulk of what we are teaching computers to do is how to act like an experienced darkroom printer.

Darkroom work is a “hands on” craft. When asked about the future of traditional photography vs. digital photography, one of my old mentors quipped: “Don’t worry about the future – kids are always going to want to get their hands wet.” A bit flippant, certainly, but not without truth. There is that moment when your first image floats up from the developer solution – this moment is unlike any other. There is no way to digitally replicate it.

Drinking with Jake (Round Zero) – Jason Kelley

What follows is a reprint from 2011’s Diffusion III – a precursor to “Drinking with Jake”.
We reproduce it here in anticipation of Jason’s solo exhibition at Good Gallery, which opens on Friday, July 6th, 2012. 

interview photos by Oliver L. Ogden

 

Jason Kelley and Jake Shivery have been best pals for damn near a decade. They have spent most of that time talking, at length, about photography. For the purposes of this interview, they settled in to comfortable surroundings with their dogs and plenty of whiskey and then set about trying to describe Jason’s relationship with strip photography in fifteen hundred words or less.

Who: Mr. Jason E. Kelley, Linear Strip Photographer
Where: Jake’s attic
When: March, 2011
What: Corner Creek out of the bottle

 

Jake:  So, why use strip photography over a more “traditional” form of photography?

Jason:  With traditional photography, the focus is on the still image. Photographers go to great lengths to set up a still image. But with strip photography, the emphasis is on what’s moving. And what can be done with what’s moving.

JS:  There certainly is a lot of movement. And I’m seeing things I’ve never seen before. I’ve never seen a centurion battling a druid at Stonehenge, for instance.

JK:  With that particular image, I was trying to illustrate a warp in time. I’m not sure I would’ve felt comfortable trying to illustrate that concept without a sense of movement.

JS:  We’ve all been watching for the last couple of years and observing your slow slide over towards a more and more narrative form. Care to speak about the importance of narrative form in strip photography?

JK:  In the past, the narratives that I’ve seen in my head, I’ve never been able to handle them properly as a still image. But strip photography imbues the image with a kinetic energy, a sense of movement – something is happening. This is important for the ideas in my head because everything needs to be moving around. It doesn’t make sense otherwise, to me anyway.

JS:  In the past, you’ve worked with other forms: mirror lenses, pinhole, and some of my personal favorite work, the photo booth project.

JK:  And the photo booth was, or is, fun, but it’s just that – it’s my fun photography. It gives me something to do at parties. I enjoy doing it, but I feel like I’ve hit the ceiling with it, creatively speaking. Photo Booth was the only time I wasn’t actively trying to distort reality, and I knew I had to get back to that – from the first time I picked up a camera, I was working on distortion – with different lenses, focus shifts, focal length, and now with moving film. Even though it feels like I have a long way to go, and I’ll probably always have a long way to go, strip photography has finally afforded me that proper distortional balance for the ideas in my head, yet still leaving me plenty of room for evolution. Basically, the form resonates better with what I have to say. At the same time, the narratives and my thought processes have been heavily influenced by what strip photography does to the image. I’m going to guess it’s like that with every art form, the medium will always influence the direction of the work, while still being complementary to your personal artistic process.

JS:  Let’s use that segue to talk about process. We’re lashing together this interview so that there will be some context for folks looking at the images in Diffusion Three. How important do you think this is, and are you happy with the idea of the interview? Would you prefer that people have the paragraph next to the photo, or that they just saw it cold and had to wonder? Would you prefer that the audience wasn’t actually reading this interview?

JK:  I definitely don’t want a paragraph next to each image explaining what’s happening. But, I think that with the more labor-intensive processes, it’s important for the viewer to have access to an explanation of what’s going on. Certain people will be thinking: “Oh, this isn’t just a still image – this is something else – what’s going on here? I have to know.” It’s only fair that their curiosity be sated.

 

JS:  Well, we’ve spoken a lot in the past about how art, specifically photography, should always be able to stand on its own. That if a photo needs even a caption then it’s intrinsically missing something as a piece.

JK:  I know. And the need for explanation with strip photography is almost painfully required. How do I explain this effectively? When I see a photo on a wall, I want to have a reaction, I want to sense the beauty in the piece and have an emotional reaction – I want to be moved. And I think strip photography does that, or at least the successful images do. But then there are other people, the curious people. They want to know, and you have to tell them.

JS:  And to make any sense out of it, you have to be a photographer?

JK:  Well, yes and no. Lori [Jason’s fiancé] is certainly interested in the process. I mean, she’s certainly interested in the human element and the narrative as well, but even though she’s not a photographer, she’s still interested in the technical applications.

JS:  So let’s talk about tech. I love telling the story of you and strip photography, and your process. You’re out there in the field with your sundial and your abacus and your yardstick. You shoot with a modified Canon AE1 with a giant manual crank and you’re doing all this with your head and with your hands. I’m quite sure that when most people look at this work, they assume you’re using a computer. That, if anything, you just went crazy with Photoshop.

JK:  But I do use a computer. I mean, ultimately, I have to put them through the computer to be able to pull the kind of prints that I want. But all of the manipulation and distortion is done in the camera. I’ve always preferred to work on the front end – the computer is just a vehicle for getting to the prints.

JS:  I still think it’s important to point out that you could do all this without a computer.

JK:  Oh sure, all you really need is an opaque piece of material with a slit and a way to move the film. And some ideas that want to move.

JS:  Let’s talk a bit about the camera that you’re using and the modification.

JK:  The modification is simple. To do what I’m doing, you take a 35mm camera, and you put an opaque screen between the lens and the film. And in that opaque screen, you put a 1mm slit up the vertical length. This allows 1mm of light to strike the film as it passes by. You just open the shutter and start moving the film past the slit. I’m using a hand crank from a Beseler enlarger to transport the film. Other strip photographers have motor drives to move the film, which does provide smoother and cleaner images, but isn’t necessary.

JS:  And this is what makes everything look like a comic book?

JK:  True. At it’s most basic, anything that is moving in pace with the film becomes the “static” subject, and anything not moving blurs and streaks and becomes the background. There are subtleties here, of course. And it’s the exploration of those subtleties that’s most interesting.

JS:  Lastly, let’s talk about your short term and long term goals with strip photography.

JK:  In the short term, I need to keep perfecting my control.  As well as play more with depth in the image.  Also, start shaking things up a bit more – some macro, more elaborate costuming and props, panning, and precise control of lighting.  But ultimately, I’m most interested in using the power of the motion blur and then compounding the effects.  In the more long term sense, I’m interested in fully exploring the narrative, and specifically with the synthesis between science concepts and art. People seem to think of science and art as opposites, or at least irreconcilable. I think this can’t be farther from the truth. I think science and art are twins. Born of the same parents with different life aspirations perhaps, but nevertheless, family. Science and art are from the same gene pool.

 


For more Jason Kelley work, kindly visit his website:  www.jasonekelleyphotography.com

As mentioned before, this interview is reprinted with permission.  Its original publication appeared in actual print – please see Diffusion Magazine, Volume III.

Thanks to Oliver L. Ogden for the incidental interview photography.

Jason’s first major solo show of Linear Strip Photography will be hosted by Good:  a Gallery.
The opening will be from 7-10pm on Fri, July 6th, 2012.
The gallery is located at 4325 N. Mississippi Ave.
We’ll be there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flying with film, X-rays, TSA and other fun stuff, Part 2.

An image from a trip to Rome several years back. This roll was x-rayed four different times.

Welcome back.  The last time we were here discussed some of the finer points of flying with film, specifically navigating the x-rays of airport security without risking damage to your film.  This week I want to talk about two ways to circumvent airport security (legally of course) altogether: processing out of country and/or shipping film via courier.

Processing abroad, pros and cons

X-rays only pose a risk to undeveloped film.  As mentioned in the previous post, x-ray exposure follows the same characteristics as exposure to light.  Just as developed film is no longer sensitive to light, it is also no longer sensitive to x-ray exposure.  It makes a certain amount of sense to have your film processed abroad and carry the negatives back through airport security on the return trip, right?

Processing your film in a foreign lab has its advantages, but I still don’t recommend it.  This strategy introduces you to a whole new set of risks, the greatest being the quality of the lab that you find to process your film.  The chemistry used for processing film is a tricky business.  It isn’t that hard to do it right, but it can be even easier to do it wrong, and sometimes the effects of poor processing can take years to show up.  I have an acquaintance who made a trip to India several years back and had all his black and white film processed while over there.  Four or so years after his return he was forced to start scanning all his negatives because they had begun to fade due to poor fixing in the development process.

In addition, once developed you are left to carry around negatives which are moderately more vulnerable to physical damage than when the undeveloped film was still wound inside the can or wrapped upon its spool.  You trade the risks of x-ray exposure for the risk of scratching, folding, or tearing your negatives.  One alternative to carrying around vulnerable negatives is to ship your film back home (or to a trusted hometown lab (wink wink)) after it is developed.

Despite the risks, avoiding x-rays is only one of the reasons to process film in a foreign lab.  If you are on an especially long trip, or traveling with camera new to you, or your camera has suddenly developed a strange new sound, it can be a good idea to have a couple rolls developed here or there to confirm that both you and your equipment are functioning as you would like them to be.  Better to find out about a mistake you are making or a failure of your camera halfway through that three week trip to Italy rather than after you return home.

If you are going in search for a lab while in a foreign country the best advice I can offer is to ask local photographers.  These days, thanks to sites such as Flickr or 500px, it is quite easy to link up with photographers living in countries you plan on visiting.  Send a couple of them e-mails and find out where they have their film processed.  A few quick e-mails could prove to be negative savers.  Additionally, look for a lab that has a more “serious” dedication to photography, as opposed to quick, one-hour labs attached to grocery stores, post offices, tourist attractions, etc.  The former cater more to the permanent photographer population in their area, the latter to the transient tourist crowd.  One is going to care much more about the quality of their work than the other.

So how about just shipping film?

Ah, USPS, UPS, FEDEX, DHL.  A photographer’s litany against airport x-rays.  But courier services can be as sticky a wicket as having your film processed by a foreign lab.  If you are staying in the US, and want to explore shipping methods, then USPS’ priority service as well as UPS or FedEx ground will probably be pretty safe and reliable.  Do make sure to take out insurance, particularly with USPS.  If you don’t and your package gets lost… you will be up a creek as they say.  Best to just trust me on that one.  Typically ground services are not x-rayed, though FedEx and others do state that they reserve the right to x-ray packages when necessary.  Putting a sticker that marks your package as “Film” will likely help, though it is far from a guarantee.  Blue Moon Camera ships and receives film via USPS most every day, and the only damage we ever see almost always results from improper packaging (think a roll of film in a normal letter envelope ripping open mid-transit).   FedEx and UPS have been similarly safe when it comes to domestic shipping.  But x-rays and poor handling should not be your only concern; ever seen those non-air-conditioned UPS trucks on a hot summer day?  They get pretty toasty, just ask the driver.  Heat and film are almost as poor a mix as x-rays and film.

The picture gets much murkier once you start shipping internationally because then you are introducing not only customs but local shipping procedures as well.  Some countries like Thailand (and perhaps Egypt currently) will x-ray every package going out in an effort to curb smuggling.  Also bear in mind while shipping from a foreign country that the English language warning labels you apply to your packages may not be understandable to everyone that ends up handling your film, and therefore the caution stickers may not be heeded at all.  X-rays aside, what kind of conditions is your box of film being held in while it is out of your presence?   There are just too many questions in this case.  X-ray exposure at the airports doesn’t pose enough of a risk and can be minimized such that I always feel much more comfortable with my film in my possession the whole trip.  At least then I know what is happening to my film, the ambient temperature it is being kept in, and where it is at all times.  I would resort to courier services only within the U.S.A. and even then only if I have exposed so much film, I could not possibly carry it back on the plane with me.

In summary

Despite the length and depth of these last two posts, I don’t want to heighten your concerns about x-rays.  The risk is real, but if you handle your film correctly, the risk is also quite slight.  In the event that you suspect your film has been x-ray fogged, then make sure your exposures are nice and healthy.  Even in film that has been damaged by x-rays, the fogging is usually pretty well masked by a healthy exposure.  It usually takes the combination of x-ray fogging and underexposure to really make the damage evident.

Flying with film is not difficult; it is not even all that dangerous.  Armed with good information, knowing how to ask for a hand-check and what to avoid – and flying with cameras and film is quite easy.  Simply avoid checked luggage, ask for hand-checks when possible, carry a changing bag if you have large format film, and don’t sweat an x-ray or two (just keep it to a minimum).  Don’t forget, if you get really antsy, you can always ship your film back straight to us.  We’ll  care for all those latent memories-to-be until you can return home.

So, until next time, safe travels and happy photographing.

Flying with film, X-rays, TSA and other fun stuff.

Paris.  Rome.  Cairo.  Hong Kong.  So many places to see, so many photographs to be made, right?  Before you can start making photos of all these far off places, you have to get there.  And so does your film.

Ironically, with all the changes over the last several years in airport security, my biggest concern hasn’t been my privacy passing through the new full-body scanners at the airport, but how to safely get my film and cameras through.  The simpler days of just stuffing your film in lead-lined bags may be gone, but being a traveling photographer also doesn’t have to be overly complicated or troublesome.  This short series of articles will guide you through the process of covering the distance between here and there with all your film (and cameras) safe.

X-ray fogging.  Myth or reality?

The risk x-rays pose to film is a good place to start.  Rarely a month or two goes by that Blue Moon Camera doesn’t see film that has been fogged by x-rays.  Exposing film to x-rays is similar to exposing it to light.  A few things can be drawn from this fact.  First, the faster the film, (and the more sensitive it is to light) the more sensitive it will be to x-rays.  Airport security will generally tell you that it is safe to x-ray any film 800 ISO or slower.  This is a good recommendation to follow, though I have traveled on several occasions with 1600 and 3200 ISO film and had it pass safely through x-rays.  Nonetheless, the slower the film, the safer it will be to x-ray exposure.  Second, just as you can expose film to light multiple times to build up exposure, so to does multiple times through x-ray machines increase the risk of fogging.  Thankfully, most trips abroad won’t require more than three or four passes through security.  Five passes through x-ray machines is the recommended upper limit.  Third, not all x-rays are created equal – some are much more powerful than others and will fog film much more easily.  Generally speaking, the x-ray machines used for scanning your checked luggage are quite powerful and can damage any speed of film on a single pass.  The x-ray machines that you and your carry-on luggage pass through are much less powerful and moderately safe for film, as long as you keep the ISO under 800 and limit the number of exposures to five or fewer.

Photo courtesy of Kodak

In the U.S., TSA regulations allow photographers to request a hand-check of film.  This is a great way of avoiding x-ray exposure, especially when you anticipate a long trip with several airports (and several x-ray machines) involved.  Before you leave home, remove all your film from their cardboard boxes.  I generally take my 35mm rolls out of their plastic cans too and put them all in a giant Ziploc bag.  My 120 film I usually leave sealed in their foil packages and put those in another large freezer bag.  If you plan on hand-checking, it is a good idea to arrive at the airport with extra time as the check can add 5-25 minutes to the security screening process.  Once you reach the x-rays, have your bags of film out and just ask for a hand-check of the film.  The bags will get passed around the x-ray machines and a TSA official will then proceed to inspect each roll individually, probably even swabbing them for chemical explosive residue.  The more film you have, the longer this can take.  Be prepared.

Sadly, once you are out of the U.S. don’t count on hand-checks.  In all my travels I have never succeeded in having film hand-checked internationally, nor have I met anyone else who has.  A co-worker risked getting arrested when he tried to push for a hand-check coming back from Paris.  Once you are abroad, it is best to accept that your film is going to be x-rayed, which is all the more reason to have hand-checks done in the U.S. to keep exposure to a minimum.

What about lead bags?

Lead bags used to be a photographer’s answer to the dangers posed by x-rays.  Unfortunately this is not really true anymore.  With heightened scrutiny during security screening, one of two things will happen if you put a lead bag through x-rays.  Either the screeners will back the bag up and zap it with x-rays again until it is penetrated and the contents can be seen (and your film zapped) or they will pull your bag and inspect it by hand (in which case you should have just asked for a hand-check to begin with).  In short, lead bags are not terribly useful these days.

I was hoping to do some infrared photography on vacation.  Is it more sensitive to x-rays?

Thankfully, no.  Your photographic life is tricky enough handling IR film as it is, and there is no need to make it more so.  Orthochromatic, infrared, slide, sheet film, redscale, cross-processed –  none of these make any difference going through x-rays.  Do keep in mind though that if you are planning to have your film hand-checked and are carrying infrared film, you better bring along a changing bag as IR film will be fogged by exposure to light even while it is in the can or rolled on its spool.  The one time I had IR film hand-checked, the screener had no problem using my changing bag to check that roll.

Of course, if you are flying with x-ray film it is not a very good idea to put it through x-ray machines, but I imagine you had that figured out already.  The same is true of motion picture film as well; it should never be x-rayed.

In summary for today, x-rays present a definite risk to film… under certain circumstances.  As long as you avoid putting film in with your checked luggage, carrying film faster than 800 ISO and passing through more than five x-rays your film faces very little risk.  My last two trips to Europe I skipped hand-checking completely and my film was unaffected.  This is a good point to pause for this week.  Tune back in next week and we shall continue this discussion with the advantages and disadvantages of processing film on foreign soil and shipping it via courier.

New-Fangled Automatic Ordering Windows Amaze and Amuse Blue Moon Clientele

Photo by Berenice Abbott, 1936, WPA

Accessibility has always been one of our cornerstone business concepts.  We have always wished to preserve our customers’ ability to purchase the products that they need, when they need them, at a competitive price.  We’re pleased to have recently introduced the latest step in our execution of this ideal – our shiny new Automat.

For those not familiar with the concept, the Automat was an early vending machine, but on a very large scale.  The precursor to fast food, the machines gained popularity in urban areas starting around the turn of the last century.  Simply put, you walked up to a bank of windows, popped in your nickel, and received back a piece of pie, or a half a sandwich, or a cup of coffee.  No muss, no fuss.  While this idea still has some amount of traction in other countries, the American automat is all but gone, swiftly replaced by drive-through windows and pizza delivery guys.

Well, we love the idea, and personally, I think the name works on several levels.  First and foremost, it’s the same illusion of the machine.  With the food-related automats, you were faced with a bank of windows – you put your money in and received your snack.  No waitress, no cashier, only you and the machine. But stop and think about it – that piece of pie did not make itself, nor was it made by the vending machine (thankfully). There were people behind the scenes, rolling the dough and cutting the wedges.

It’s the same for us – the Blue Moon Camera Automat allows you to deal only with your internet browser, but remember: we are back here, working away.  Behind the pretty pictures and the payment screen, our staff is busy – checking the orders, wrapping the packages, making sure that all is in order.

Horn & Hardart Advertisement, c. 1930s

Our Automat is currently small, and growing.  As those of you who have been in our store know, we manage an enormous inventory which is not only constantly changing, but is made up of largely unique  items.  A comprehensive index of this merchandise is cataloged on our main site’s inventory page, and always available in person, or by phone.  With the Automat, we wish to provide a small sampling, carefully curated by our staff, of particularly intriguing items.  These are the devices, apparatus and equipment that spark our interest – a small selection of what we think you need to know about right now.  Basically, the stuff that we think is cool.

Lastly, the Automat as the great equalizer.  Just like in New York or Philadelphia in the teens, you may visit our Automat at whatever time is most convenient.  No matter who you are, no matter where you are, no matter what time it is, the Automat awaits.

The Automat.

Light and time may not be endangered species but we are still always losing them

Light and time may not be endangered species but we are still always losing them.
“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”  — George Eastman

Simply, this is a glass negative found across the street at the Salvation Army.  If I had to guess I would say it is probably a bit over 100 years old, considering that was the era when glass plates were being shot.

Say the 1890’s.  Amazing huh?

So one afternoon at work I found myself holding this piece of glass with an image of three gentlemen on it over 100 years old.

I love my job.

But more importantly, I love photography.  This stuff really just blows my mind.  I start thinking about the fact that I am holding a once-sensitized piece of glass, that contains the imprint of light that bounced off of these three men over 100 years ago.  In a sense I am holding in my hand a “light shadow” cast by them and captured on this glass.

And here I am using a state-of-the-art scanner to digitize that image and bring it on to the web.  Once again – amazing.

I don’t want it to seem like I am taking a dig at digital photography (digital imaging is why this image exists on the web right now) but this is a very big reason why I shoot film:  the tangible nature.  Being able to hold a piece of film that was struck by the very light that came off of the subject and that very same piece of film may be pulled from a box in someone’s attic 80 years from now, and that someone can hold it up to the light and see what I saw is just shy of miraculous.  Nay, it is is miraculous.  The odds are great that they will even be able to still print it or scan it.

But it is not the ability to still print it or scan it that so amazes me.  It is the physical evidence that light leaves behind on a particular piece of film, or paper, or glass.  Digital doesn’t have that.  The sensor carries no physical remainder of that light, rather light gets translated into electronic bits and bytes.  It becomes a digital copy, merely an electronic replica of what that light cast.  There is nothing tangible, nothing physical to hold unless a print is made, which so often one never is.

And in some way this makes me deeply uneasy.  I don’t like thinking of the work of my life as being so intangible.  It scares me in a sense and I never feel quite as easy with digital images, despite the many amazing shots I have made on digital cameras.  And also despite how careful and redundant I am in backing those same images up.  But it is not just my work I am concerned about.  I think of all the pictures snapped every day.  All those snap shots of sons and daughters.  Mothers and grandmas.  Beautiful sunsets and sunrises.  And I think of what awful percentage of those images will have ceased to exist within ten years.  Or twenty.  Let alone a hundred years from now.

I know that even film is not permanent, nothing is really.  Not our negatives.  Nor us.  Nor our planet, or even our universe.  But nonetheless, I am pretty certain that I will not be able to pull any of my CDs of digital files out of a box in 100 years and still have them be usable.  Nor any CF cards.  My external drives won’t last more than 10 years I bet.  My digital files won’t ever be anything more than bits and bytes.  Sure I can print them, but those are just copies of copies.  Better than nothing, but still far lacking.

And so I shoot film, because I like to think each of those negatives carries the physical effect of light off of a beautiful waterfall striking it.  Or the light bouncing off of my son Owen playing when he was 6 months old.  And then again when he was 12 months old.  Or even the very light that reflected off of an old friend no longer living.  It is not so hard to hold a negative, or a plate like this, in your hand and feel like you are holding just a tiny shred of some past time itself.  The last physical remainder of a moment long extinct, and that when I hold a negative in my hand, I am touching that light again.  And that is one of the things that drives me to shoot film.  That deep sense of not just recording light and time, but preserving it.

“What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time.”  — John Berger

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If you have not browsed through it, the photo stream  run by the Library of Congress is amazing.  Really sit down and take your time soaking it in.  Don’t just browse, really give yourself the time to look.

Drinking With Jake (Round One) – Chris Bennett

The first in an ongoing series in which Jake Shivery and a guest get pickled and talk photography.

Chris Bennett and Jake Shivery founded their businesses with similar goals, at similar times, in the same city.  As friends, they promote one another’s artistic ventures, and have spent the last decade or so in an ad-hoc proprietor support group.  This is not their first time drinking together.

Who:  Mr. Chris Bennett, founder and Executive Director of the Newspace Center for Photography
Where:  Jake’s garage
When:  March, 2012
What:  Manhattans – later, Bulleit Rye, straight up

Jake:  Thanks for coming over.  Tonight I want to talk about three things:  I want to talk about Newspace, of course, and I want to talk about your art and your progress towards an MFA, and lastly, I want to talk about photographic politics.
Chris:  Ah.  The tricky one.
Jake:  And that’s why we’re saving it for last.

JS:  So, let’s just dive in on Newspace.
CB:  Blue Moon and Newspace are right about the same age…
JS:  Blue Moon’s a bit older, actually.
CB:  Yeah, fine – by like a year.  You always remind me.
JS:  And I always will.  But there was an outfit there before there was Newspace.
CB:  Yeah, there were some Russian brothers there running a for-rent darkroom called Paparazzi Studio.  I was a photographer looking for a place to print, needed somewhere that could handle fiber.  Paparazzi had opened up, like, six months before I took it over.  They didn’t want to do it anymore – I was working in there when they decided to bail out.
JS: I can vaguely remember that.  There was a lot of techno music.
CB:  Oh yeah, it was a scene.  They had decided that they were through and were trying to get out of the space.  They wanted to sell me some equipment, and I just ended up buying the whole thing.
JS: That’s a big bite.
CB:  It was, but I needed a place to print, and I knew other people did as well.  Got some credit card loans, asked the folks to fill in some gaps here and there, and found myself sitting in the office with a lease and some equipment and a few people that I knew in town who were photographers.  It was definitely born out of the need for a facility.

I figured I had the skills from being a darkroom tech and a photo assistant.  All the aspects of it, from being a commercial assistant and knowing how to run a studio and knowing how to run a darkroom from high school and college and knowing how to run classes from working in Santa Fe.  I just started asking friends – people that I knew who had work – if they wanted to have gallery shows.  We just started going from there.  And that, really, is still what Newspace is – just that.  And yet, now, it’s so much more, so much different.  I don’t think I ever would have dreamed that it would be where it is today.

JS:  And where is it today?
CB:  It’s where I dreamed it would be.  [laughs]  I’m not kidding.  I saw Seattle and their photo center up there – what a fabulous resource for the community – classes, and facilities and a place to work among like-minded people.  The space I took over was a little rough around the edges – well, it still is in its way – but we’ve come a long way.
JS:  That first darkroom was a little rough around the edges, all right.
CB:  Yeah, but we’ve built since then – built from scratch.  The new Newspace is custom built to suit our needs.  Even on our limited budget, we’ve still managed to make it quite nice.
JS:  It certainly is.
CB:  I felt like Portland was the perfect place for this – I mean, why would it not work here?  Although there were many times when it almost didn’t work.  But somehow it’s always made it through.  Even today – well, we had a rough stretch recently, but we toughed it out and we’re back where we need to be.

JS:  How would you say that Newspace’s mission has changed since you’ve opened?
CB:  The core of the mission has not really changed.  What we’ve had to do is stay current with technology, know what will attract people and keep them interested, but overall the mission has stayed the same.  It’s developed along with our maturing programming, but in the end result it’s a place for creatives to create their work, share their work, and show their work.  And be inspired, hopefully.
JS:  You got Newspace started on the front end of digital photography.
CB:  Yeah, we didn’t get the digital lab until 2007 – that’s when we got our computers – although we had some digital classes before then.  Looking back, that was probably the worst time to open a darkroom – the whole industry got turned on its head.  I mean, we had the die-hards who wanted to do film and alt process, but there was obviously a lot of interest in the “new” digital medium.  We still have those people, people like us, but now we have the equipment to help everybody.  It’s definitely not about me – it’s not just my thing, we want everybody to be able to do anything that they want to do.  And personally, I’ve shifted, too.  I still shoot film, but now I scan and print digitally.  Now, when I go in the darkroom, I feel rusty.  But it’s nice to still have the darkroom available.  I still love the process of film.

JS:  Let’s talk a little about Laura Valenti Jelen.  The other half of Newspace.
CB:  You know, I had met Laura a few weeks before I took the plunge, I had seen a notice at Citizens about a photo group that she wanted to put together.  They had the people, but they needed a space to meet.  It was within a month that I took over, so I called her up and said: “Well, how about we meet here.”  She started teaching our first darkroom class within a couple of months.  She also volunteered a couple of nights a week, helping out in exchange for access.  It was about 2005 when I brought her on as our first part time employee.  She took over the catalog and all the classes – that quickly paid off in the increase in what we were offering.  Within a year she was full time – it was great to have her there and the position paid for itself.  So, she’s been doing that for seven years now.  And then we became a non-profit in 2006.  That was a big change.  I knew it was the right move, although the IRS as an entity is not the easiest to deal with.

JS:  How much do you want to talk about that transition?
CB:  It was pretty challenging.  I kind of made it harder on myself – I should have just started over with a new name.  Going from a sole proprietorship to a non-profit always raises red flags.  But I liked what it was, and ultimately, I was trying to run it as a cooperative from the start, anyway.

At the beginning, I was still working outside, too.  I was photo assisting and working in the deli at New Seasons the first year I opened Newspace.  It took a long time to be able to pay my rent, and living expenses, which back then were quite minimal.
Once we got through the process with the IRS, which took a year and a half, and finally got our status, it was all about keeping the board together and developing policies and procedures – some better business practices – back then it was looser.  I used to just stick the money in the bank bag.  I still remember when you and Kelly [Palin, former board treasurer] came in and said “OK, now how do you do your end of day?” and I was all, “End of day?  Well, the money’s in the bank bag.”
So luckily, you were there early on to bring your business acumen to the table, and you know the story from there for a little while. You, the second board chair, me, with a “plan” – we were all learning as we went along and there were struggles and challenges.  But we had some successes, too.  That first board was mainly a support group – I had pulled all photography people, and none of us had much non-profit experience.

JS:  I remember talking about that first board: “OK, we need some education and some retail and some photo-journalism – we need to encompass all the different types of photography.”  But what you actually needed was non-profit people with an interest in the arts.
CB:  And essentially, that’s what the board is comprised of today.  People with various experiences – lawyers and people good with money to help with budgets and a few with fund raising backgrounds.  We just amended the bylaws to go to 13 sitting members.  That should make it function a little better in regards to committees.  We’ve got a great board right now – all of our boards have been great, and they’ve always been a reflection of where we’ve been as an organization.  It took a long time to get here, but we attract some pretty great people to the board.  And it’s all because of the work done by the people who came before.

JS:  So the transition between the old Newspace and the new Newspace – that was a big deal.
CB:  Yeah, the best thing that Newspace ever did was not hire a photographer for something.  We hired an honest-to-God grant writer as our development director.  A young lad name of Steve, who had gone to the Institute for Nonprofit Management and done some internships in foundations around town.  He came in and said, “OK – what are we doing?”  And I said, “Here’s my dream.”  At that point, we were running out of space for all of our classes.  We needed a better digital lab.  He started writing grants and making relationships with foundations and we started receiving some very significant grants for our expansion project.  We physically expanded, obviously, but we also expanded out programming, and overall made the facilities more legitimate.  It makes a huge difference, having such a nice gallery space, having such a nice front entrance.  It makes a good impression.   Before it was just a cinder block, kind of bland – now we have a much nicer space to accommodate what we’re trying to do.  Of course, we’re already getting tight on space.

And that’s the big lesson.  Hiring people for the skill set that we need.  I mean, we still want people who are enthusiastic about photography, but hiring a straight-up grant writer was critical.  And Steve’s now just part time – we lost him full time in December.  Now we’re transitioning again, with hiring a new director – a whole new era for Newspace.  So, essentially, that person will do his job, the development job, and with me going to grad school, I’ll be handing off a certain amount of administrative duties.

JS:  So you’re making it, it seems.
CB:  We’re getting by.  It’s hard, of course, with the economy, but we have a dedicated following.  The darkroom does well – it still throws off a lot of revenue.  I was just running our numbers, and the darkroom is still running in excess of the digital lab.  But ultimately, it all comes down to classes and workshops – and memberships – memberships are our lifeblood.
JS:  Clearly.  You seem to have many, many members.
CB:  Are you a member, Jake?
JS:  Hey, I was on the volunteer board – I paid my dues early.
CB:  Yeah, which we appreciate.  But we still need members.

JS:  Let’s hear about the family – how did you meet Roseann?
CB:  Well, let’s see.  She was printing at Newspace, working on a project with her cousin in DC.  We got to talking, and then there was a First Thursday opening I wanted to see, so I asked her out for a drink.   Being a proprietor, you have to be careful – you can’t just go around asking out the customers.  But we got along – we had that drink, and maybe a couple more, and the next thing I know she’s riding on my handlebars back to Newspace.  That was a long time ago.
JS:  That was a very long time ago.  Now your son Brandon is – what?
CB:  He’s going to be two in June.  He’s a blast – except when he’s not.  No, no, he’s a good little guy – he lets us sleep as night.  Doesn’t give us too much crap.  Yet.  We’ll see about the terrible twos.

JS:  OK, let’s talk about the road to your MFA.
CB:  I’ll be telecommuting the photo MFA at the Hartford Art School, which is a part of the University of Hartford, in Connecticut.
JS:  Telecommuting, huh?
CB: It’s the best way.  I always knew that I wanted an MFA – if Newspace had not happened, that’s the direction I was taking – but then, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now, talking.  I wouldn’t be married to my lovely wife – and there would be no Newspace.

Since then, at least once a year, I’ve gotten the itch and ordered some course catalogs.  Life being what it was, I just collected the catalogs and threw them under the bed.  But this year, well, I feel like it’s time.  It’s starting to feel like it’s now or never.  There may be a second child, and then there’s always Newspace – so I feel like the window is closing.
I wanted to go full time, but there are no MFA photo programs in Portland.  University of Oregon is the closest one – I had a long talk with Roseann about moving but she loves her job and doesn’t want to go anywhere.  And really, I don’t want to totally bail on Newspace.

JS:  So, tell about the program.
CB:  It’s telecommuting mostly, but with two weeks in Hartford, and then in the winter, there’s a one week trip to NYC, and in the spring time, there’s a one week trip to Berlin.  The rest of the time, you have an adviser you meet with, over Skype.
JS:  Is there a specific person you’re studying under?
CB:  The two main faculty are Robert Lyons and Mary Frey – part time is Alex Soth, a fellow 8×10 shooter, and Doug Dubois out of Syracuse.  There’s more, and I’m excited to be working with some really great people.  There’s a lot of great work on line – it all feels very mature, very thorough.
JS:  It might be a little weird – you’re a photo instructor yourself.  Furthermore, you’re the ED of the Newspace Center for Photography, a bastion on the west coast.
CB:  Thanks – that’s very nice.
JS:  No, but I mean, how do you think you’re going to fit in with your other classmates?  Big shot on campus?
CB:  C’mon – you know me, it’s not like that.  Really, it’s all about the photos we’re making.  Right now, I’m even a little intimidated by the quality of the work.  I mean, not that’s it a competition, but I want to be able to keep up.

JS:  Let’s talk about the evolution of your own body of work.
CB: Ten years ago, when I started Newspace, I was really heavy into video stuff, and slowly started drifting back to still work.  I shot the Brownie a lot, and the 8×10 a lot, a lot of travel stuff, a lot of experimentation.  Two years ago, I started following the Lewis and Clark signs.
JS:  That was on a grant, wasn’t it?
CB:  It peaked for me when I was in that first Lightbox show in Astoria, and started following the landmark signs, and started shooting along the Columbia, and then, yeah, last summer I got a grant from RACC.  That aided in my travels back to St Louis.
JS:  Specifically, to do what?
CB:  Follow the Lewis and Clark Trail and document it.  I’m pretty much just now finishing up with that project – wrapping my brain around it, but I’m pretty happy with the way it came out.  I just showed the work at SPE in San Francisco, and got some pretty positive feedback.

Working on this project is really what’s amplified the desire to finally get to grad school.  Starting from the Lewis and Clark project, I’ve started to develop a new project.  Spawning off of that, I’ll be photographing the Columbia, and tracing it back to it’s source.  You know, photographing the river, but also, I want to do more portraits.  What I’m after – my hot word right now – is the Contemporary American Landscape.  It’s comparative – it will be my travels and my experiences, but also the idea that some of the scenes will be just like Lewis and Clark saw them.  And some, not so much – there’s been a lot of development and new communities.  As I said, my new challenge for grad school will be portraits – more time getting to know people.  This is what I’m trying to do – not just the landscape, but also the people that make up the landscape.

CB:  It’ll be strange – I don’t think it’s set in quite yet – being part time at Newspace.
JS:  You don’t mind giving up the control?
CB: No, not at all.  As long as they don’t tell me what to do [laughs] – no, at this point I’ve had control long enough.  Of course I want to feel that whoever is calling the shots is making the right decisions, but I’m excited about the applicants.  And it needs someone new to take the helm.  At this point, it’s beyond my skill set and my comfort level.  I don’t want to be an Italian cruise ship, up on the reef.  I have a good sense of what I’m good at, and where my strengths can really help.  I will always be involved, and I’m proud of what I’ve done, but you have to know when to hand it over.

JS:  So let’s talk about politics.  What do you think about the Portland scene?
CB:  I love Portland.  This is a great place to do anything that has to do with the arts.  People are receptive and anxious to try new things.  There are a lot of folks here trying out new stuff.
JS:  The NW Center for Photography recently opened with a mission very similar to Newspace’s.
CB:  That’s Sharon O’Keefe.  I love Sharon, and I know she’s fulfilling a lifetime goal starting that space.  She’s always very enthusiastic – you can tell how much she really cares.  In today’s market, you have to expect some competition – it keeps you on your toes.  More importantly, it only helps to make the market that much more viable.  There are a lot of people in town doing interesting things – and a lot of good organizations.
JS:  The museum is another good example.
CB:  Oh yes – hiring Julia [Dolan, Minor White Curator of Photography] was an incredibly smart move for them.  What she’s done in such a short time is phenomenal.  And then there’s Todd [Tubutis, ED of Blue Sky Gallery] – all of these people are doing such fabulous work.  We’re hoping that Newspace can continue to be an important part of this community.
JS:  You want to talk about tech at all?
CB: You mean film vs. digital?  It’s turning into a non-issue, really.  One thing that’s interesting, from our perspective, since we do both, is the number of people who have gotten started in digital and moved over to film.  I mean, not all of them – some of them find the darkroom kind of overwhelming, but when they have access to both sides, we do see a lot of people “graduate” to the darkroom.  The film people are pretty easy to keep happy – as long as we’re not affecting their access to their facilities, then they’re fine.  Most of the classes are just digital shooters – but there’s still people using a lot of film.  And then the students who want to push it further, well, they try out the darkroom.  Some really like it, some run screaming, many find a way to blend the two, as I’ve done.  The debate is really settling itself – there is some harmony out there.

JS:  Anything else?
CB:  If I have one bitch about the Portland art scene, it’s that there’s no viable MFA in photography.  Now I have to tele-commute just to stay here.  But it’s worth it –  there’s no place I would rather be.

JS: That’s it?
CB: That’s it.  Thanks a lot.
JS: Thank you, and good night.


Two More Links:
Chris Bennett’s personal website:    http://www.christopherbennett.net/
Chris is also May’s featured artist on Plates to Pixels:   http://platestopixels.com/

Chris’s Manhattan Recipe:
2 shots of old Overholt rye whiskey, 1/2 to 3/4 shot of vermouth
2 dashes of bitters, 1 cherry with a spoonful of juice with it – add ice and stir.

 

You Are Your Camera

Treating your camera well seems straightforward enough, and everyone knows to keep their equipment clean and safe.  What may be somewhat less obvious is that all cameras need exercise – they were designed to run frequently, and if they’re allowed to, they will run well for the long term.  This is a critical point – cameras locked up and languishing will only atrophy – cameras out in the world, working away, will remain consistent, predictable, and functional throughout their careers.  Likewise, you as a photographer will enhance your photographic expertise through practice and diligence, both during shoots and during the times in between.   Much has been written regarding how to make pictures, but precious little about what to do when you’re not shooting.  My advice:  Play with your cameras while no one else is watching.

Neglect has been the ruin of many a good shutter.  Your camera, no matter its vintage or provenance, is not an artifact or a museum piece – it is the device which you use to make art.  Properly used, it lives and breathes.  A pox on the collectors with their jails full of cameras, locked away and forbidden from making photographs.  And congratulations to the photographers who keep their photographic arsenals limited to only what they utilise.  All cameras are meant to be used, and happiest when they are out making pictures.  Lubricants must be kept from drying out, shutters must be fired, apertures must be opened and closed.

Keeping your camera in use keeps it in shape, but for many of us there can be long lapses in between bursts of inspiration.  This is the ideal time to be tweaking, tinkering and fiddling with your apparatus.  These simple calisthenics not only makes for a healthier camera, they also educate you in the specifics of how your camera works.  How consistent is the shutter?  Which speeds does it like best and which are most accurate?  How accurate is the viewing system?  Does the transport work better with one long stroke, or with a series of shorter movements?  Overall, what are the foibles of your camera’s personality?

A regular exercise regimen with your camera helps establish familiarity, and ultimately a more intuitive operation.  Plus, it’s fun.  There is little in life as pleasurable as simply fooling around with cameras.  Obviously, given my trade, I adhere to this point.  We at the sales counter play with cameras all day long.  On my own time, with my own gear, I still enjoy this simple pleasure, with the added benefit of maintaining my connection with the camera I actually use to take pictures.  I recommend this for everyone.  Downtime from shooting is the best time to be cleaning and fiddling and mastering the controls.  Conversely, shooting-time is the worst time to be fooling around with your gear.  Tinkering with your camera is the last thing you want to be doing when dealing with an impatient subject or fading light.

You may think of your camera as a companion, as an associate, and as a collaborator.  Do not expect a camera which you barely know to automatically respond to your every thought.  To have a piece of equipment perform in the way you expect (and need) it to, you must have a solid understanding of its personality.  What are the quirks specific to your camera?  How does it like to be adjusted?  The most competent photographer will  be able to intuitively manage his or her equipment under any circumstances, and this ability comes from handling the equipment constantly.  You should know it inside and out.  Most importantly, you should be friends with your camera.

Being a dedicated Deardorff man myself, I follow the wisdom of Ken Hough.  An accomplished master, Hough suggests that your birthday is an excellent anniversary on which to maintain your camera.  He has composed a comprehensive list of regular annual maintenance that you should perform to keep your camera looking and feeling its best.

He’s right on various levels.  Not only does your camera require some level of maintenance, but both you and it will benefit from a level of personal attention.  Making a ritual out of it not only keeps your gear in top working order, it also strengthens your working relationship with your camera.  In this sense, which kind of camera you are using is irrelevant – film or digital, 35mm or 8×10, SLR or TLR – the rules, and the profit gained, are all the same.  All cameras need to be taken out and exercised, whether on the job or not.  Every photographer’s process will improve, even while not actively shooting, simply by becoming more familiar with their camera of choice.  This is no mere tool.  Your camera is an extension of yourself.  It is, after all, how you will be making your pictures.

Sunday mornings, days off from shooting, idle moments waiting for light – these are all excellent times to establish better rapport with your equipment.  Remember, every camera enjoys a birthday party.

Student cameras – Minolta SRT 101

Minolta SRT 101

Burly and reliable, this early entry in the SRT line is built like a tank.  One of the most important aspects of this camera is its sheer heft – a very popular choice among those who plan (or don’t, hey accidents happen) to put their camera through heavy use.  While we cannot necessarily recommend this, there is a popular gossip that the camera doubles nicely as a mallet.

The SRT 101 is the oldest camera on our list, having been introduced in 1966.  It adheres to the design philosophy of that time; build it from metal and build it to last.  Four decades later, these cameras are still going strong, with no trace of the planned obsolescence so commonplace today.

As you would expect of each camera on this list, the SRT 101 is simple in design and use.  Metering is as quick and straight-forward as you want it to be via a match needle system.  The SRT 101 is also fully equipped with a self-timer, depth of field preview and even a mirror lock-up.  Early models do lack a hot shoe, but flash photography could still be done via a PC port on the camera body.  In short, Minolta covered all the bases.

Advantages:

  • Simple. Easy to learn and use.
  • Extremely well built. Reliable. Rarely requires maintenance.  Almost entirely metal.
  • All mechanical camera, only the meter requires battery power.
  • Many models include additional features such as mechanical self-timer, depth of field preview and mirror lock-up.

Disadvantages:

  • Big and heavy.
  • Most early SRT 101s have no hot shoe, though the camera has a PC port for flash photography.  A hot shoe was added to later versions of the SRT line.
  • If the camera has not seen a repair shop in a while, it may need to have the meter calibrated for modern 1.5 volt batteries.

Also consider: Minolta SRT 102, SRT 201, SRT 202 and Minolta X700.

Images from the Minolta SRT 101: www.flickr.com/groups/minolta_srt


Student cameras – Olympus OM-1

Olympus OM-1

From a design standpoint, the OM-1 is the most unique of the five cameras on this list. Olympus set about redesigning the SLR from the ground up, and with their first entry into the field, they did an excellent job breaking from the rest of the pack.

The first important (and most noticeable) change is the size and weight of the camera.  The OM-1 is a very slim, very lightweight camera that nonetheless offers all of the mechanical, all manual control that makes for a good student camera.  As small as the body is, it still offers one of the largest viewfinders found in an SLR – one quick look through an OM-1 and you’ll note just how easy it is to focus on your entire frame.

More significant is the change in the control layout.  Forget what you already know about the orientation of camera controls – on the OM-1, the shutter speed dial is now located on the lens mount instead of the top of the camera.  While this may throw you for a bit of a loop at first, you’ll quickly realize the main advantage – focus, aperture and shutter speed adjustment are all controllable with the same hand, and all usable without having to look away from the viewfinder.

Metering is likewise simple and intuitive, done via a match-needle system similar to that of the Pentax K1000.  Another aspect of Olympus’ rethinking of camera controls is the depth of field preview – instead of being built into the body of the camera it is instead incorporated in the lenses themselves, allowing all Olympus lenses the use of this helpful feature.  The OM-1 includes a self timer and mirror lock-up lever, giving it a well rounded list of additional abilities.

 

Advantages:

  • Compact and elegant design makes these some of the smallest SLRs available.
  • An all mechanical camera needing battery power only for the light meter.
  • The entire range of Olympus lenses are of superb quality.

Disadvantages:

  • The smallest of the five big camera manufacturers means there is not as much Olympus equipment to be found as compared to Nikon or Canon.
  • The adjusted layout of camera controls takes some getting used to.

Also consider: Olympus OM-2

Images from the Olympus OM-1: www.flickr.com/groups/olympus_om-1

Student cameras – Nikon FM

Nikon FM

I will admit right from the start, I am biased toward the Nikon FM.  My first SLR was (and still is) a Nikon FM2n.  I love that camera.  I loved it from the beginning and that admiration grew at the same pace I did as a photographer.  Personal bias aside for a moment, the Nikon FM is similar to all the other suggestions listed here for student cameras.  The FM is simple, easy to learn and easy to use; the controls are manual by nature – focus, shutter and aperture all need to be set by hand – as required for learning students.  The Nikon FM stands apart from these other four cameras though in the fact that it was designed to be used by professionals as well as amateur photographers.  The camera was meant to back up the venerable Nikon F2 and F3 carried by photojournalists.  As such it needed to be rugged.  It needed to be modular.  And it needed a certain degree of additional functionality to satisfy the demands of the professional world.  Because of this, the Nikon FM (and by extension the FE, FM2 and FE2) are incredibly reliable.  They allow the attachment of motor drives and replacement of focusing screens.  The camera’s functions include a depth of field preview, a self-timer, a mirror lock up and a multiple exposure lever.  Another additionally nice feature is the film advance lever serves as an on/off switch, allowing the camera to easily be switched off conserving battery power, which in the FM is used solely for the light meter – the rest of the camera is purely mechanical like the K1000, OM-1 and SRT 101.

There are four popular cameras in the FE/FM series.  The Nikon FE and FM are nearly identical, the big difference being that the FE is an electronically governed camera (hence the E) where the FM is mechanical (hence the M).  The FE allows an aperture-priority automatic exposure mode as well as an extended range of slow shutter speeds beyond 1 second on the shutter dial.  The FE2 and FM2 have additional top speeds up to 1/4000 of a second.  In truth, any of these four cameras will make an excellent starting choice.

 

Advantages: 

  • Incredibly well built and designed.  A reliable camera that will last for years and is easy to have maintained and refurbished.
  • Simple and easy to learn, but leaves plenty of room to grow into.
  • Incorporates many additional features such as self-timer, depth of field preview, mirror lock up and multiple exposure switch.
  • Nikon lens mount has remained consistent over the decades, allowing the use of most manual and auto focus lenses.

Disadvantages: 

  • The Nikon line of lenses has become more expensive in the last few years due to the interchangeability amongst manual focus, auto focus and digital bodies.
  • Not much else.

 Also consider: Nikon FE, Nikon FE2, Nikon FM2, Nikon FA

Images from the Nikon FM: www.flickr.com/groups/fmseries