Sunday, December 19, 2010


Recently someone made a tentative stab at recruiting me to lead photo tours of foreign spots.  Thirty middle class or better amateurs off to do the sites, lugging lord knows how much high priced digital photo gear...

I wondered why on earth they would want to do that.  I have covered in my musings here the subjects of photographic art and, to a degree, the photographic business.  Now, I suppose it is time to ponder why an otherwise sane doctor or lawyer or chiropodist would want to hang out with 30 other amateurs and a sprinkling of hired pros to take pictures of sunsets in Namibia. 

I still have heavy metal boxes of my father's Anscochrome and Kodachrome slides from out trips in the family Chevy to exotic places like Northern Wisconsin and South Dakota.  I remember the slide shows he did for neighbours and friends with our one-slide-at-a-time (pre-carousel or slide tray) projector.  I remember how deathly dull they were to even me, who had been there.  And the shows our neighbours did for us, to return the punishment, were, if anything, worse, because I had not been there. To think that showing trip photos today on a flat screen television with some generic music or on a laptop or I-Phone is going to be any more entertaining for the neighbours is delusional. 

Are these amateurs going to print and matte and frame the photos for wall display in place of real art on the walls of their castles?  One can only hope.

There are few, if any,  valid extrinsic reasons to blow 3K on a trip carrying 12K in gear to take photos. So, the reasons must be intrinsic.  Maybe we look back to the first man who drew a bison on a cave wall. Maybe he was just doodling or maybe he was trying to communicate something that his language skills could not adequately convey or maybe he was making magic. I prefer the magic theory.

I prefer the magic theory because I can remember long before I was cognizant of trying to produce photographic art to sell or display or exhibit or get published and well before I made a dime taking commercial photos for money, I FELT the magic at the moment I knew I had a good image sitting in my viewfinder-- an instant away from a shutter press. 

Photography is a ritualistic form of hunting.  It is the same feeling I get the instant before I release my arrow on a deer giving me a broadside view at 15 yards.  A momentous moment... An ecstatic moment...  A moment I will never forget...  I can feel each shutter press on each great image as I go through the steamer trunks of unpublished and un-displayed personal work I have.  I can remember each moment before each deer I have harvested. 

Hunting pictures...

Monday, December 6, 2010

Going Down

Another MM documentary masterpiece...

The man's head, his shadow and the slope of  the wall all headed in the same direction--down. This could well be a  dream scene, but it is all too real.  It brings home the reality of poverty and homelessness without pity or gives no quarter. As frightening as it sometimes seems to have a shadow following a figure in a photograph,  it is  more frightening still to have the shadow PRE-ceding this man. It foretells a black future for a man who is obviously living in a dark present. The man's head is down and we intuit that  he can see his shadow and know its meaning.

Of particular note is that one foot is raised a few centimetres off the ground indicting motion, but moreover creating a feeling of greater tension in an already tense image. The foot will forever be off the ground because this is a still photo. Same feeling as Sartre's NO EXIT... 

Note that the figure is moving against the direction most Westerners read. Reversing the image weakens it.  The composition serves the feeling.  It is a perfect photograph, perfectly composed, taken at exactly the right time. Nothing more can be asked for or delivered in a photograph.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Firstly, this image is another magical example of MM's ability to bring a point of view to a moment in time. The image is perfectly composed in the wild and abandoned way MM has of both ignoring and obeying compositional standards at the same time. I call it the "fuck you" school of composition, but it is really just a more complex and sophisticated way of organizing the elements in a photograph to create tension that serves the subject matter. We are not confused by too many colours. As in the previous example, we only have two colours.  It is a blue photo with red accents. It would still work as a monochrome in greys, but it is more striking the way it is. The image is full of contrasts that jolt the eye: colour contrast, age contrast. racial contrast (I think), figures in and out of the vehicle, sharpness and blur, and things seen behind glass and things seen without the glass intervening. This is a dream scene.

There is, without a doubt, a story here, but a story that would only make sense to the unconscious mind It is the product of an artist who clearly has a very porous barrier between the conscious and unconscious mind.

As Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine said in CASABLANCA,

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."

This photograph is not an accident, Rick.

This image is courtesy of MM, whose link is at the right.

I think the thrust of my thinking about what use photography might have in the world and its value as an art form have led me to the general conclusion (with Art Kunstler's guidance), that portraiture is certainly one  important use of this mechanical and electronic art form. But I think there are additional useful and valid reasons to value the photograph--and we are talking subjective value here--my subjective value, to be precise. Simply stated, as though I ever state things simply, photographs are valuable only if they are documentary in nature--if they are true expressions of the artist who has been able to bring a point of view to a moment in time.  Wow, I like that phrase--"a point of view to a moment in time".

In service of my argument, I will offer over the next few posts a selection of MM's photographs that do exactly that--"offer a point of view to a moment in time". MM a master of this ability.  She can paint a picture of the inside of her mind by selecting a slice of her visual reality carved by her lens and her shutter. I am not being poetic, but literal, when I say "selecting a slice of her visual reality carved by her lens and shutter. The lens allows her to select the "what"--the angle of view and what will be encompassed. The shutter allows her to select the time she wishes to see that angle of view.

What has MM selected above?:  Repeating vertical stripes like a picket fence. The contrast between oranges and blues. The contrast between a real human and a statue of a human. The contrast between what is seen directly and what is seen in reflections. A man who is staring at us staring at him. The man is only half a man and is starting at us through his own personal glass barrier. The image is a waking dream fraught with universal symbolism and also with MM's personal symbology. 

We, in our daily lives would walk by this same scene and never see it, even if we saw it. We are as unaware of the magic in the outer world as we are of the magic in our inner world. It takes an artist of the stature of MM to remind us to be mindful of both the outer world and the inner world. MM shows us that integration at the interface of these two worlds is how and where art is created.  

Monday, November 22, 2010

Four Months

Once upon a time I wandered in the desert for a week in a 3 cylinder rental car that had to be downshifted to climb a grade when the air conditioner was running. I wasted a day each way flying to and from the desert. I spent half a day developing the film from that week and another half a day contact printing the negatives and looking them over. I spent three days printing the dozen or so good images that I had taken in the desert on double-weight fibre-bases silver paper that I processed to archival standards.

I spent 13 days and produced 12 first-class images.

The screenplay, so artfully pictured above, took exactly 4 months to write and has yet to spend an indefinite period in the purgatory of re-writing before it ascends into the heaven of finished work or is consigned to the hell of un-published rubbish with 2 novels and two hundred poems for company. Granted, that of the 4 months, I had writer's block for three and a half weeks and for much of the rest of the time, my daily "writing" consisted of merely re-checking the spelling and punctuation that I had checked the previous day and then giving up to have a beer.  But still it was a hell of a lot more work than making 12 "first-class images".

What is my point?  Well, writing the preface above has caused me to lose my focus on the point I was trying to make. Maybe by tomorrow I will figure out the cosmic import inherent in a comparison of writing and photography.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Six days with no musings about photography... I have spent the last six days finishing the screenplay I started 4 months ago.

Monday, November 15, 2010


It seems today that I have reached an impasse in my thinking about photography, so I will have to use the thoughts of a truly horrible photographer and truly gifted painter (Carl-from-Iowa) as a spring board for today's missive.

 I quote the illustrious Carl,"It seems to me that you have figured out how to make photos of value with your portrait work. You "photograph feelings" modify the image in subtle ways , and then make as archival a print as possible. Portraiture has the advantage in that it just has to reach the one person and not necessarily "enter into the realm that strikes a universal cord".

For the last 49 years I have been self aware of myself as an "art photographer", and maybe only recently questioning whether there is  such a thing as "art photography", and if there is, whether I have actually produced any. I have the right credentials, certainly, as at the age of 14, I was taking stark black and white photos of black birds atop gravestones and a man in a hat pretending to play a trashed and weather-beaten upright piano in an old shack in the woods whose roof had collapsed.  It don't get much artier than that, folks.

I am moved to reminisce about a thought I had in the decade before last as I was plying my trade as a avant garde cutting-edge child portraitist employing photojournalistic techniques ( faux journalism these days being quite standard and boring fare among studio photographers).  Mothers would weep at the depth and sensitivity of my work with little Johnny and little Suzy.  No one has yet wept at  my black birds on gravestones or whatever the hell art shit I was doing then.

I realized that if I am remembered as an artist, or even remembered at all, that it will be for my child portraits not my "art photography". With Carl's quote above, I have retuned to that thought about the usefulness of my life's work in photography,

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Art Kunstler Comments on the last two Hawk posts

How do we make our choices in ascribing value to an object of human creation ?
To understand where we are and how we got here it is important to understand the history of the image since the invention of photography. For tens of thousands of years the only images where made by hand. Reality was inevitably changed by the process of interpreting the image through the mind and hand. But then photography made an accurate representation of a scene at a particular instant. It captured "reality".
Some photographers set out to capture that external visual reality, preferably as starkly as possible. But even here manipulation crept in. Photos where cropped, dodged, burned: red hats where put on, people were posed, objects moved in or out of the frame. And then PHOTOSHOP.
Concurently, artists though that the camera made realism in painting redundant. They thought that the only true ART comes from the mind without being dependant on external visual reality. The goal was to be as creative, or "new" in the image as possible. This led to more and more convoluted creativity. A lengthy explanation was required to understand the image. This ultimately ended with paper plates with turds on them and photos of objects without any creativity. What this art says is not only "fuck you" but, "I know what is going on, and you don't".
Not just photography is dead, so are painting and printmaking. From the first photo, some photographers tried to make photos that looked like paintings and some painters made paintings that looked like photos. Technology perfected techniques of printing on canvas, and even replicated brush strokes in the automated application of varnish. All art and art photography became harder to understand. Concurrently art education no longer provided the basis to understand different mediums and their ramifications.
The ART cognoscenti have intentionally excluded the average person from understanding the meaning of images. Art merchants, advertisers and others have blurred the distinctions between mediums and the reality of images. So now the average person doesn't want to know what an image means, or care how it is made. They value an image solely on the basis of how it affects them.
This has implications for artists involved in the creation of images. It now longer matters to how it is made. The distinctions between photography and painting have disappeared. It doesn't matter if the photo of the bike and cross shadows was spontaneous or manipulated, painted or printed, except to the  artist who made it. It matters to the artist because the goal is to be able to create great images over and over. Even though most people don't care how it is done, an understanding of the particular techniques that an artist chooses to make an image, and how that image is produced, is essential to creating good images. The key is making images that are so deep into our personal understanding and intuition that they enter into that realm that stikes a universal cord. If the artist is interested in a legacy they also need to understand how to make images of a permanent nature. These things will give an image value. What they end up costing is a entirely different matter.

The only known photograph of Art is a Drawing


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Value: Part 2 of A Change in the Direction of My Thinking

I am an atheist. I believe in a random and uncaring universe to which sentient beings attribute meaning and perceive patterns and impose a kind of order. Nothing is permanent or has intrinsic value. That is not the same as Nihilism. I believe we sentient beings make choices and those choices matter (at least to us).

When, yesterday, I talked about MM's photograph, and why it is "good" and why it has perhaps greater validity  because it is not constructed from odds and ends on Photoshop and is the work a visual genius who creates her art in 1/500ths of a second bursts but is less noble because it is not an oil painting with weeks of painstaking brushwork, I am exploring the subject of how we make our choices in ascribing value to an object of human creation.

Let me skip to a body of work from another photographer who has exhibited in and is represented by a prestigious gallery. Her work is printed on large, but not monumental, pieces of ordinary colour photographic paper.  Her photos depict artificial fishing lures (plugs) hanging from a line, placed in the centre of the frame against a whitish seamless backdrop.  The lures are not antiques or unusual in any way. The compositions are artless. There is no story and no imagination apparent.  It is simply an artist (sic). saying "fuck you" to the viewer.

She is saying, in essence, "I am an artist and you may not question me; my work is internal and has no meaning."

I don't think that "fuck you" is a particularly new or revolutionary expression in art.  Perhaps the first time an artist took a shit in a Mason Jar and got someone to exhibit it, it was edgy. It's shocking artlessness called into question a lot of ossified notions about what art could be.  The turd in a bottle had value for its novelty and its attack on convention. The turd is no longer new or edgy nor does it or these fishing lures have any further value as art. There is no concept beyond "fuck you."

I can create in my mind's eye a myriad of visual possibilities for using fishing lures.  I like a photo of a fishing lure in the mouth of a frozen fish or a rectangular package of frozen fish. I like the lure in the mouth of a real fish smaller than the lure--a little goldfish or guppy. I can imagine the lure in the mouth of a rotting fish or a skeletal fish.  Or attached to a huge blow-up child's pool-toy fish.  Or a hundred lures in the mouths of a hundred of those motion detecting plastic talking bass installed in a room in a gallery--all chattering as the patrons pass by saying something ridiculous or disturbing with all the fishing lines connected to a single point near the ceiling at the end of a fishing rod held by _____fill in the blank.

None of those above visual scenarios I have imagined for your benefit say "fuck you". Some are funny, some are profound, some are delightfully ambiguous but they are all legitimate artistic expressions. The woman who created the fishing lure photos, and worse, the woman gallery owner who exhibited them are guilty of the crime, at minimum, of insulting the public and crass exploitational narcissism at the worst.  "Fuck you" is post-modern, to be sure, but surely we have moved beyond the post-modern to a new value-based aesthetic.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Change in the Direction of My Thinking

Unwittingly, I have been blogging for a month or so, but I think really starting to build the bones of a book on what I term "a post-photographic aesthetic".   If "god is dead" was the phrase that began a whole discussion in theological and philosophical circles, my phrase "Photography is dead." has been  my springboard for discussion in this whole blog.

The art world as a whole has been grappling with the "death of art for nearly a century. I saw the movie "Pollock" last night about the troubled visionary painter Jackson Pollock.  In between Ed Harris chewing up the scenery on his way to either an Oscar or a Razzei, there was lots of discussion about the death of any type of representation in art.

And then I run across a photograph like this one done by my friend MM:

And it takes my breath away despite all my cynicism about the present-day validity of the medium.  Why don't I take a moment to do a post-mortum on this image. The image has unity both because the corner and edges are dark, forming a frame and because it has a unity of colour and texture, for the most part. The image has balance and grace with its two strong verticals-one clean and sharp and the other a fuzzy shadow.  The image is balanced, but not static or boring. But what makes the image so powerful is the sharp organic and kinetic shadow of a human who looks to be falling of a bike or something (what is really happening does not matter). That shape is most intriguing! That shape tells a story, but an unclear and possibly unsettling story that sends the viewer's galloping in several direction.  Put that sharp complex and undoubtably human shape at the bottom of that fuzzy icon shadow Christian cross and the image really set off fireworks in the Western brain. The gutter line at the bottom adds definition but it is at a slight angle and is not a boring border, but just a little off kilter. It adds both solidity and tension.
The only parts of the image not nicely textured are the human shadow form and the sign on the left.  What does the sign say?  What is the human doing or what is happening to the human?  And to highlight the importance of the human shadow, it is underlined by a ray of light.

Everything I have just said is just so much "art critic" bullshit because you can only apply that kind of critique to a painting in which the artist controls and considers every brushstroke in the service of creating exactly the painting he wishes to paint--whether the painting is repersentaional or not. A photographer can not be critiqued in that manner. This image, if I remember properly was captured exactly as you see it,as a Gestalt, if you will, in 1/200th of a second. It arrived on the sensor or the Canon Rebel camera fully formed.  The mind of the photographer, who is a genius in every sense of the word, perceived it, shot it and chose it to display it.

 It is not a Photoshop creation, although it could have been. Or it could have been a painting. I wonder, without having any final answer what difference it would make if it were a Photoshop collage or a painting.  I believe, without labouring a point I am not sure of, that the value of the image would go down seriously, if it were cobbled together from odds and ends on Phototshop and the value of the image would increase by orders of magnitude if it were an oil painting.

And now we are talking about value. I will talk more about value in my next post.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


On the dog walk this early A.M., I took photos of the dog on the path--the abandoned rail right-of-way we are wont to frequent--always the path with vegatation on either side (spring, summer, autumn, winter) the path disappearing in a convergance at infinity.  I have been taking this same photo for the past 161 years--the lives of three dogs.  None of these dog photos were taken for money nor do they qualify, even in my inflated view of my own work, as art.

The other photo I have been taking for 50 human years is of a lone tree in an empty field.

These two types of photos are the sum total of motifs that reoccur in my photography.  Two.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Day with no Photography

Imagine, if you will, a day with no electricity or a day with no automobiles or a day with no telephone service.  None at all--anywhere...

Now imagine a day upon which no photos are taken. Sure we would miss photos of secret terrorist bases in the desert taken by satelite and we would be inconvenienced by having to wait a while for our driver's license photo or our passport photo or, if it were a Saturday, those horrid overpriced digital wedding photos, but the world would not come to an end.  There would be no microscopic photos of germs in medical labs or photos of microchips undergoing inspection at Intel, but one day would not slow medical research or chip production.

No, a day without photography would be pretty much like any other day.  Most people would not even notice that their camera did not work for 24 hours--even most professional shooters would survive the inconvenience and loss of income.


Thinking about a day without photography is a good way to put the importance of photography into perspective.  Of course, without the motion studies of how a horse runs by Eadweard J. Muybridge  a century or so ago, we humans would still not know exactly how it is that a horse runs, but it would not have prevented one single horse from running.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Questions Needing Comments

My old/new friend Carl and I were travelling together this year. At Meat Cove, the end of the line at the far end of Cape Breton Island, we camped.

A few days ago Carl sent me an ink-wash that he uses as a kind of sketch or first step in doing a painting or wood block print. The ink-wash was taken from a photograph that he did.  The scan of the ink-wash appeared in my e mail with the comment I moved the (camp) fire like you told me to do (at the time) but I would have moved it anyway. So Carl did what artists have been doing ever since there were artists, moving the campfires in drawings or paintings or any other damned thing they wanted to move to serve the needs of the art piece.

When digital photographers do this now, it is viewed by some (and I am sometimes included in that "some" but not always) as "cheating".   And it is cheating, if you think, as I do, most of the time, that the crowning glory of photography, that sets it apart from all other artistic media,  is that the viewer regards it as "real".
Any student of photography knows that photographers have been retouching negative and prints and now digital images ever since the beginning.  Edward Weston, one of my personal heroes in photography was a proponent and practitioner of stark reality in his art work, but spent most of his life making money by retouching and glorifying portraits of rich women.  A practice, I, his disciple, continue to this day on my big Mac computer using Adobe Photoshop.

Photographers cry and wring their hands wanting to be taken seriously in the art world (for over 150 years and now, still!) But they do not realize that when they throw away the illusion of reality by having access to Photoshop, the medium itself becomes a throw-away medium--just a lot of ones and zeros inside some infernal computin' machine signifying nothing and worth nothing.  And even though the actual images created in Photoshop are as good or better than anything in the world that is painted or drawn by hand, no one can convince me that something whipped out on Photoshop in a few minutes or even a few hours has the absolute value of a painting that takes weeks or months to complete. And the public's awareness  that the work done on Photoshop can be reproduced in infinite quantity does not help the value of the digital work either.

Even though I am making what seem like statements, they are all still questions in my mind and I invite comments.  Please...  Why does work that I do that is of the highest order of visual quality, that if it were a painting or even a wood block print could hang in almost any gallery in the world, have to languish unsold in my portfolio?  The question is rhetorical, let me assure you.  But a little edge of bitterness remains.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Big Job

We, as animals, are animals whose first and most trusted sense is our sense of sight.  The newer parts of our brain are connected to our eyes.  We think with our eyes: "Seeing is believing".  We have classically and naively  put our trust in photographs for that reason.  Men and to a degree women use vision as the first test in the mating process, although it is not the most important nor the final test of the suitability of potential mate.

How do all the above musings relate to the title "Big Job".  Heck, I'll get to that.  Keep yer panties on.

I was in the fall woods with Rascal-the-Dog a few days ago.  It was one of those glorious fall days in a glorious wood lot.  It was all there in all its glory--the blue sky, the puffy clouds, the golden leaves both on an off the trees.  An opportunity for taking a photography surely... But no, there was more in the woods than these  static visuals--the cheery tinkle of the bell on Rascal's collar and his fluid way of going as he cast about for bird scent--his moves like those of a canine-gazelle-- an easy rolling gate with explosive yet effortlessly balletic leaps over deadfall and branches.

And while Rascal was casting about for elusive bird smell, I was overcome with smells.  The sweet musty dampness of leaves after the rain the night before was firing the neurones of my memory in an involuntary, yet pleasantly nostalgic, reliving of layer upon layer of falls before, populated by the ghosts of other bird dogs, other hunting trips, and even the wraith of a gentle woodsman father, patiently teaching his tow-headed boy to look for edible mushrooms and elderberries in long-gone falls, just as ghostly now as he.

I knew intuitively it would be a big job to take a picture of that woods two days ago that could evoke the other senses as much as they were evoked by actually being there-- fully present in that precious moment--inhaling the must of the leaves, enchanted by Rascal's merry bell and warned by the high haunting whistle of the wind through the newly naked arms of the majestic maples and stalwart oaks that nothing lasts forever.

Someone could take such a picture, I am sure.  I was just as sure it could not be me.  I am not good enough yet.  So I left my little pocket camera rest in the left bottom pocket of my hunting vest. I could not do the moment justice and did not insult the moment by trying. It would have been a big job to hit all the right visual notes to accompany the complex sensory symphony playing in my imagination.  Not an impossible job, but a job bigger than my self could accomplish....

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Comment on Accidents by Art Kunstler

I think the room where ARTists go can be better characterized as a labyrinth of many halls, doors and rooms. The accidents you refer to are indeed gifts. However, good accidents are more likely in the "rooms" that have been arrived at by exploring many dead ends, further rooms, and hidden doors. That is the difference between the new and old, although a rookie may stumble into a great room or an old pro may go to a great room ( Toronto ) and realise that there are only good photos there.  The work is in exploring rooms as well as the work once the image is found. But as the sportscaster Howard Cosel used to say " Luck is the residue of hard work"
Art Kunstler

See Art at his web site:

The only known PHOTO of Art is a DRAWING:  

Monday, October 25, 2010


Most professional photographers whether engaged in art or commerce, when they do their own "personal work" are probably doing a good job of photographing the insides of their heads in time-sections sliced from the scroll of the omnipresent fantasy that is moving across their eyes like a player piano roll that is belting out the tune that is the AHRtist's life song.

But it is not that cut and dried. AHRtists are not just painting the world to our own specification (making art) but we are being subject to the lucky accidents that a person living in a particular state of awareness runs across by being in that state of awareness and grace that is akin to a special room where AHRtists can go that others can not or will not go.  The accidents are a gift, unearned--a gift that elucidates a particular problem with the WORK that can now be addressed because of that "accident".

Accident" is a much less pretentious word than "Revelation!" I like the word "accident.  As opposed to inspiration (to be filled with the spirit) or the aforementioned "R" word. Mystery does not need to be embroidered with a spiritual dimension, to be any less mysterious. And accidents are that mystery.  There is no particular reason one person gets cancer and another does not.  Oh, a bad attitude can increase your risk for a few kinds of cancers a few percent, but we  DO NOT run the universe or even understand spit about it.

Be not proud of your art; that is a gift, unearned.  Be proud of your determination and courage to continue working.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Visionary's Vision

Suddenly a photo appears inside the skin of your eyes! All of the  illusions that the world has taught you to call "reality" disappear and for that one Crack-of-Time moment you know that you, standing alone with your camera, can create YOUR reality.  This one precious moment is yours to participate in the ongoing Work of Creation.  You are linked to the aeternal. You have been chosen to be a conduit for the divine.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Comment on Student Photo

This is the gist of an e mail I sent to my students yesterday. 

Regardign your Hearing About the Old Days photo:

Once again, this is a perfect stock shot.  And I mean perfect....  It works for me a little better in colour than in B+W--more honest, if you will, than the fiddled with version. Just as a drum machine is not a musician, a stock shot, although perfect, is not art.  I know there is a thrill to just seeing a photo--any photo--come up in the viewfinder and have it be   a perfectly composed and balanced shot and of a perfect subject--one that your parents or grandparents would never have photographed with their Box Brownie cameras.

I know that when I talk about the old days, and I increasingly do, I either get a tear in my eye or laugh,if I go on reminiscing long enough.  Everyone's past is littered with success and failure--laughter and tears.  The photographer must not be afraid to that littered place in photographing a subject.  Imagine the strength in this same photo with a tear in the guy's eye or him in the middle of a big laugh. When I talked about putting a "hook" into a photo, I was only talking about a visual trick--a damned good trick, at that, but a trick.  There is also an emotional hook that is not a trick and is a far far more subtle thing than putting a red boat into a seascape. 

The point of ageing is poignancy; life has always been short, because we never know when the next bus will run us over, but at an advanced age, there are a hell of a lot more busses running on a much more frequent schedule.  Put THAT in your picture. THATis the hook.  I can not tell you how to put in in your picture until it first exists in your own heart and mind.

And that emotional hook can be felt in something as non-human and seemingly overly photographed as a desert landscape in colour.  Michael Fatali has learned how to put that emotional hook into his landscape work.  It is beyond me how he does that.  He sees a landscape with the magic in his heart and his discipline and technical ability give him the tools to share it with us in all it's majesty and purity. See his work at  


Yesterday I was in Toronto with two cameras, a tripod, studio lights and 7 lenses.  A crisp clear autumn day, as pretty as it gets.  I did my job in the morning and was free for the afternoon.

Wandering around the heart of downtown Toronto, I was treated to a visual feast. I was thrilled several times a minute by new visuals.  I saw hundreds of remarkable images--some purely architectural, some architectural with natural elements juxtaposed, and some architecture with people and some just people shots.  I could have produced hundreds or maybe just a single hundred startling images, ranging in scope from pure design studies to poignant, ironic and feelingful photos of people within those designs.  I did not take any photos.  I did not even take a camera with me for my wander in this visual wonderland, because I could not answer the question: "Why should I?"

Photos on a computer have no value, I have no room to store large prints and no money to frame them.  No one is begging me to buy them.  No one is begging me to publish them.  No one is begging me to exhibit them.  In a year or two or three of hard and canny marketing on the internet and by phone, fax, and in person, I might begin to make inroads in the art or publishing market. And then again maybe not.

There is no money in selling them as art or in publishing.  There is no fame or glory.  I have nothing left to prove to myself or to anyone who knows me that I can spend any afternoon anywhere and produce images that most people anywhere would obviously recognize as works of art.

I am not disheartened or bitter about this state of being.  It is what it is. It is a different world now with a different set of values for mechanically created visual art.  It is cheaper than ever before and approaching sheer worthlessness.  My photographic hero, Edward Weston in his Daybooks laments about how the world does not appreciate him or his chosen medium. This lament is nothing new.

Soon, in a post literate world, all the writers will be lamenting about how no one loves or respects them any more either.  Hell, classical music would have died a long time ago had it not been institutionalized as a field of study in Universities.  Nothing lasts forever in a culture.  We are in a post-photographic world not because photography has died but because of its ubiquity and its loss of the magic belief that it relates in any way to reality.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Back to My Old Rant

When I look at stock photography and look at "art" photography the stock photography is always  "better"--meaning more carefully composed and sharper and with better colour and contrast and with carefully chosen subject matter , but it sucks. Stock is meant to sell something and looks like it. Stock photography does not have pimples on its ass.

In general, advanced amateur works also looks better than pro work of 30 years ago.  Perfect, sharp, and wonderfully--well-- wonderful.  But it sucks too.  We don't need thousands of advanced amateurs wandering around the desert trying to be Ansel Adams in digital colour.  (Not that I have any love for the visual work of that old faker; he was a master technician and teacher and that is all.)

I think I only care about photography that moves me emotionally and leaves me changed. And I don't mean photography that is solely "socially relevant" or depressing. It could be funny or ironic.  It must say something about the human condition, and, yes, it could even be a landscape in colour. Instead of posting a photo today, I will post the Nobel Prize acceptance speech of William Faulkner.

I feel that this award was not made to me as a
man, but to my work--a life's work in the
agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for
glory and least of all for profit, but to create
out of the materials of the human spirit
something which did not exist before. So this
award is only mine in trust. It will not be
difficult to find a dedication for the money part
of it commensurate with the purpose and
significance of its origin. But I would like to do
the same with the acclaim too, by using this
moment as a pinnacle from which I might be
listened to by the young men and women
already dedicated to the same anguish and
travail, among whom is already that one who
will some day stand where I am standing.
Our tragedy today is a general and
universal physical fear so long sustained by
now that we can even bear it. There are no
longer problems of the spirit. There is only one
question: When will I be blown up? Because of
this, the young man or woman writing today
has forgotten the problems of the human heart
in conflict with itself which alone can make
good writing because only that is worth writing
about, worth the agony and the sweat. He
must learn them again. He must teach himself
that the basest of all things is to be afraid:
and, teaching himself that, forget it forever,
leaving no room in his workshop for anything
but the old verities and truths of the heart, the
universal truths lacking which any story is
ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and
pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.
Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He
writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in
which nobody loses anything of value, and
victories without hope and worst of all, without
pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no
universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes
not of the heart but of the glands.
Until he learns these things, he will write
as though he stood among and watched the
end of man. I decline to accept the end of
man. It is easy enough to say that man is
immortal because he will endure: that when
the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and
faded from the last worthless rock hanging
tideless in the last red and dying evening, that
even then there will still be one more sound:
that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still
talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that
man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He
is immortal, not because he alone among
creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but
because he has a soul, a spirit capable of
compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The
poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about
these things. It is his privilege to help man
endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of
the courage and honor and hope and pride and
compassion and pity and sacrifice which have
been the glory of his past. The poet's voice
need not merely be the record of man, it can
be one of the props, the pillars to help him
endure and prevail.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Not Posting a Photo Today

Imagine an 8 point buck that has met with extreme prejudice at the business end of a laser-sharpened broad head; it is not a pretty sight--just 108 pounds of meat for the winter.  I will spare y'all.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Today I looked at 490 of another person's photos and did a first round elimination and got them down to a more reasonable number.  I think there is a book somehow somewhere in this bunch of photos.  I think the first and best way to pitch it is to make a small sample book and shop it around.

The photography is serious.  Not always sombre by any means, but photography that is serious even when it is being light-hearted or seemingly frivolous.  The humour is more in the vein of whistling-past-the- graveyard humour than of unvarnished gayety.  And the serious is photographs are brutal, stark and in-your-face.  This collection features portraits done on the street that are literally in the face of the subject person--taken a foot away from the face with a wide or normal lens.

If Robert Frank and W. Eugene Smith and Weegee and Diane Arbus were working in Kitchener/Wateroo with a tiny digital camera, this is what the photos would look like.  Except this photographer has not studied the work of these people and copied it, but is a natural talent devoid of visual references and visual vanities or prejudices.  She uses Photoshop, but never to bad effect and never in the service of lying.  The photography is not 100% straight, but the intent is 100% straight and honest.

After looking at those photos I took this:
I think this is a happy photo.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

At Some Point

At some point, I, and perhaps all other experienced photographers, developed the ability to pre-visualize the final print, burned, dodged, bleached and toned, framed and matted, even, at the moment the shutter was released. This happened before I knew the term "pre-visualize" as used by Ansel Adams.

In reference to yesterday's post about the thoughts of Freeman Patterson, I wonder if the undisciplined hordes of people using digital photography to take thousands of photos per week or even per day, develop that same ability.  I speculate that the ability to develop that ability is only bestowed upon photographers who take a more contemplative approach--an approach such as using a tripod.

I can recall the thrill of seeing some natural object or scene in the viewfinder and studying the corners of the frame and the balance of the composition and judging the contrast and determining how dark or light to print it and in what size and what areas would have to be lightened in printing and what areas would have to be darkened. I remember comparing the scene in my viewfinder with the thousands of photographs I had seen in books in the library and at galleries and shows.

In these moments I felt a relationship with my subject that is hard to explain with words, but could only be explained in the execution of a perfect print.  I knew if I had seen well and printed well, the feeling of oneness and wonder might be there for the viewer.  The magic of the visual world thrilled me then and it thrills me now.  The mystical union between photographer and subject is impossible to explain to someone who has not felt it, and unnecessary to explain to someone who has.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

At This Very Moment

I am listening to CBC Radio 1 Ideas program featuring photographer Freeman Patterson.

He says in his first photography class at the YMCA in New York City in the Sixties, his instructor made students take all of their photographs on a tripod.  And even after the class was over, Patterson was afraid to shoot off the tripod for a year.

He states in relation to that anecdote that the main failure of photographers now is a lack of discipline--even among serious and professional photographers.  He also relates that the most satisfying  part of photography for him is developing a relationship with his subject--drinking in the image of a field of wheat or some ferns and he can better develop this relationship by slowing down and using a tripod.

Oddly enough, I spent a year teaching myself photography in the early 70's by shooting only from a tripod for a full year.  No one told me to do this or even suggested it.  I just knew it was the right thing to do. I wonder how many young digital photographers will practice the same discipline.  I do wonder.

Photo by my friend, the inspired photographer, MM

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Some days

Some days I think the photos I will cherish the most will not be my fine art pieces or my work for my clients but the blurry photos of my dogs or my friends on the deck holding a beer or of the cars I used to own.  All the vanity of fine art and the fancy marketing of commercial work is just pissing in the wind photography. The real value of photography may be in it's ability to bring back the feelings of times gone by like the smell of lilacs on the spring wind brings back the sweetness of a first kiss.

Today I found these agaricus campestris mushrooms in the woods on my way back from a bow hunt for deer. I will remember their smell and texture and taste when I look at this photos.

Today things seem simple.

Monday, October 11, 2010


It is Thanksgiving Day in the Frozen North.

21 years ago today, I shot a triptych that has hung on my walls and given me pleasure for all these years.  It is a study in green and yellow and quite abstract.  I shot them on Kodak Ektar 25 film in 35mm with a Nikon F-4 camera and a Sigma Apo f:4.5 300mm lens from a tripod at a 60th and 30th of a second in a dark wooded river valley.  All the shots were done wide open and at a moderate distance, so there is only one spot of focus in a solid sea of out of focus green and yellow.  I printed them 16X24 size and framed them with a double green matte, and a shiny wooden green frame and used super-multi coated Den glass in front.

I did not write these details down.

I can not remember the family dinner that day or the people or any other detail of that day or even if there was a dinner.

I think this anecdote serves to illuminate one corner of the mind of a photographer--this photographer anyway.

Give thanks out loud today for something, even if there is no one else to hear you.  It is good for the soul.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Free Is Not Free

I was a very early adopter of digital photography, and am cognizant of this method's tangible benefits and drawbacks for the pro photographer. And what I am about to say has profound implications for the photographic profession, but that is a topic for another day.  Our seemingly instinctive belief in the reality of what we see in a photo is also in danger, but I have already talked about that.  This post will focus on the general public.

The general public is enamoured with digital photographer and that love for photos as electrons has destroyed a whole industry making film and paper.  But that is not the real cost of the digital revolution. The primary thrill for the general public about digital photography is that it is FREE-- no more film and printing... They are finally free to take an unlimited number of photos with no cost.

But there is a cost!

It is axiomatic that we do not value things that are free.  The number of photos taken by digital photographers as opposed to film photographers is not even on the same order of magnitude.  The world is awash with electrons masquerading as photographs.

What is rare is valued and what is in oversupply is not.  For example, once upon a time a man was sexually stimulated by a chance view of a woman's finely turned ankle, now a whole generation is becoming bored with frank pornography.  Just as the mystery and magic has been taken from sex by the digital revolution, it has now been taken from photography by the  same technology.

We have lost the preciousness of these things two things being precious, and that is a very high price indeed.  What will be taken from us next by the tyranny of the electron?

Thursday, October 7, 2010


At an age when every other sentence seems to begin with "I remember when..." I will thus, with much embarrassment, begin this entry with: I remember when photography was competing with sex for my attention. All day-every day-thinking about photography (and sex).

I didn't just think about photography, I thought of myself as a photographer.  Photography was literally identical to my identity. I dreamed about pictures. I read about photography and photographers. And I shot every day and I went to bed (to dream about photography) with a camera beside my bed.

One snowy night walking home from my job at a camera store, I remember stopping and looking up at the dizzy blizzard ringing a street lamp and making a wish.  I wish I could someday make a living taking pictures. I gripped the little 1935 Leica rangefinder camera in my overcoat pocket and squeezed it for luck.

My wish came true.


I should have been more careful in how I phrased my wish.  I should have wished to be able to make a GOOD living taking pictures.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Dollars and Scents

The photography business stinks.  Stock photography is selling for 1% (yes, one percent ) of its former value.  Time Magazine is paying less for visual contributions in dollar terms than it did in the 1970's, and in real dollar terms after inflation, a tiny fraction.  There are people with experience and modest talent and high end equipment shooting weddings for 3% (yes, three percent) of what I used to charge six or seven years ago, when I still did weddings.  It is the end of the world for the mid-level generalist photographer.

Is this a complaint?  Only a little one...

The way I look at it, it was a miracle that I ever earned a living at something that was so easy, so fun and so personally fulfilling. Photography at the level of vocation, as opposed to business, does not stink.  It smells like a flower.  More on that tomorrow.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Death of Photography?

We stand to lose a whole generation of visual history at a time when more pictures are being taken than at any other time in history.

Why?  There are many reasons but they all stem from the fact that there are almost no physical photographs being produced any longer.  Digital photos do not exist.  The Province of Ontario Canada did not even charge sales tax on digital images produced by pro photographers and delivered over the web.  Why? Because there was no tangible product to tax--just electrons arranged in a certain order and stored god-knows-where out in cyberspace.  

The problems of storing digital images are twofold: 1. Will the media on which the cleverly arranged electrons frolic survive heat and cold and bumps and air pollution as well as photographs printed on paper. The answer to that question is not clear, but varies from maybe to probably for certain types and brands of optical disks and flash drives. The answer is simply "no" when thinking about hard drives in our home computers or in the big servers in the the sky.  Hard drives are no better than 4 and 8 track cassettes--just magnetic crap on a disk instead of on a tape.  Have you tried to play any old 8 tracks or cassettes lately?
An do we all back up our photos on quality optical media?  Nah...

2. And this is the one that bothers me.  Will our optical disks be playable in 100 years. (the hard drives will have been gone for many decades)?  I have some fine poetry I wrote decades ago on a computer that is mostly used for a fishbowl by people these days and I can't seem to figure out how to retrieve it.  This is just a few decades ago and technology is speeding up at an increasing rate since then.  !00 or 150 years will either have us travelling in starships or living in caves.  Where will we find a machine with the hardware and software to play 5 inch floppies or Zip disks.

Go ye therefore to the drug store and get some prints made on photographic paper before it's too late.

What Has Light Done for Me Recently?

Beige stones piled atop beige stones on a beach of beige stones...  On a cloudy day or, at noon perhaps, on a sunny day, the visual impact of these stones is nil.

But with the sun just peaking half way over the horizon--a ball of orange flame over the cold North Atlantic out past land's end on Cape Breton Island burnishing one side of these rock creatures and the cobalt clear morning sky lighting the other side, these beige creatures rise up and speak to the wondering eye. In six minutes they cease to speak--the flame that brought them to life quenched by the low cloud of a squall line hurrying across the sea.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Beginning of the Road

This is day one. Sometime during the night, I awakened with thoughts about photography that needed airing. I thought perhaps others would care to hear those thoughts. One does this sharing these days in a Blog. Welcome.

Thoughts: We are one of the few animals that is a visual hunting species. Cheetahs, and some breeds of dogs and horse flies are sight hunters, but almost all other animals from single-celled organisms to the large mammals hunt with other senses--most notably the sense of smell. We humans also make initial choices about mates using primarily visual signals. This sense that is intimately connected with both eating and breeding is  our most trusted and important means of relating to the world.

Thinking of the importance of visual information to us as humans makes a technology that has the ability to engage our sense of sight a very powerful tool. We tend to believe what we see, whether the thing we see is in three or two dimensions. The magic and power of photography has always been that what it shows us we believe to be reality. Whether that belief is hardwired into our brains or whether it is a cultural artifact is a matter for debate.

In truth, photography has never been a true or accurate representation of reality--even before Adobe Photoshop made photos as malleable as putty. Early photos were, of course, without a third dimension, without colour, without true size, without any accompanying scent or sound, and were not taken with lenses that covered the whole 150 degree angle of view the human eye has. All photography is, of necessity, abstract, even colour photography shot with lenses that cover the same 150 degrees of angle as the human eye. And, yes, even the earliest photographers were busy retouching negatives and prints to idealize them--it just took more skill and effort then than it does now on Photoshop.
The question in my mind, as stated two paragraphs up, is whether humans will always see photos as real or will the digital age and Photoshop cause a cultural shift that permanently weakens what seems now an instinctive belief in the reality of what we photographers create in two dimensions.