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.