The Boreal Forest

Poplars, October, Fort McMurray, Alberta

THEME:  We write articles about our pictures, endlessly describing lenses, techniques, and lighting conditions, but sometimes forget to learn about the subjects themselves.  Study your subject, and your subject’s story may be the richest part of your image.  Otherwise, it’s just another pretty picture.  I discovered this when I learned about what I thought was a pretty dull piece of forest.

Compared to my coastal homeland, with its drama of mountains, enormous Western cedars, plunging waterfalls,and miles of ever-changing beaches, Alberta’s northern boreal forest seemed uninteresting.  Miles upon miles of rolling trackless wilderness, with the occasional hill, creek, or gently moving river.  Much of it, flat and boggy muskeg swarming with mosquitoes in summer, is impossible to explore.  In between ridges of black spruce, tamarack and poplar, fields of waving grass and reeds conceal four inches of water over six inches of boggy sphagnum moss.  Underneath all lies two inches of muck waiting to entrap the incautious boot. Yet having lived in the boreal woods through three seasons, I am beginning to see it as a land of subtle beauty and decorous changes from place to place, with a marsh here, a meadow there, and patches of poplar alternating with forests of spruce, tamarack and larch.

Boreal Forest Poplar Glade

The northern boreal forest, or taiga, constitutes the earth’s large land ecosystem, consisting of a broad band of mixed forest surrounding the globe in the high northern latitudes, and encompassing much of Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, and Norway.  Plant species vary, but in northern Alberta, this forest includes primarily black spruce, tamarack, and larch, with patches of poplar and birch.  Despite low annual precipitation (8-30 inches/year), cool temperatures and abundant fog limit sunshine, minimizing evaporation and supporting a damp and boggy environment.  Much of European and North American taiga was recently glaciated; receding glaciers have left depressions in the

Muskeg with Marsh and Ponds

topography that have filled with water, creating vast areas of lake and bog throughout the taiga.  As a consequence of the recent glaciation, these forests are young and biodiversity is low, with limited number of species in each plant family. Soils are heavily leached, nutrient-poor, and acidic, favoring the growth of mosses and lichen on the forest floor.  Wide temperature variations are the norm, with long, cold winters and short, warm summers.

Travelling the highways and muddy service roads around Fort McMurray, I struggled to capture the spirit of this land.  Many pictures of low hills, sunset lakes and megamachinery left me unsatisfied.  Fort McMurray was dusty and uninspiring.  My vintage cameras languished in the closet, and I snapped pictures with my Droid and little point-and-shoot, not wanting to waste film.

Larch Grove

All changed when fall arrived, and the dowdy forest donned her party dress and went dancing on the October wind.  Suddenly, poplars painted the hills with broad swathes of brilliant yellow and gold.  Late afternoons became luminous as the setting sun turned glades of poplar to flame-topped candles poised above the darkening forest floor.  Only slightly less brilliant, larch groves, hidden coyly among the spruce, flared into golden prominence.

As October  progressed, the magnificence of the treetops slowly dimmed, and I sadly took my last pictures of the sunlit poplar – only to see the forest floor come to life as it became the humble forest carpet’s chance to party.  As the cascade of color slowly fell from the treetops, the dull carpet of leaves  became a kaleidoscopic array contrasting with the clean gray of fallen logs and complementing the color palette of the low-growing forest

Bunchberry, Linnaeus, and Moss

plants.  The oranges and reds of fall bunchberry blazed against the greens of moss and twin-flower (Linnaea borealis).  The greys of lichen became an important part of the color

Alpine (Bog) Blueberry and Lichen, Engstrom lake, Alberta.

palette, highlighting the orange splashes of alpine blueberry.

Browsing even a limited part of this forest floor, it was difficult to find a bad picture.  Moving close to the ground brought into focus the curved, serrated edges of two leaves sitting

Two Leaves

atop the lines of a cracked grey poplar log.  Moving away to examine the broader scene revealed the mottled silver of  a birch trunk lying beneath a carpet of multicolored leaves.

Fallen Birch and Leaves

The most wondrous part of the boreal forest, however, lies invisible beneath the forest floor.  Mushrooms and other fungi form a prominent part of the forest community, and are frequently seen poking up between the leaves and jutting out of decaying logs and stumps.

Yet mushrooms are only the surface manifestation of an enormous, complex organism living in symbiosis with, and essential to the survival of, each spruce, larch, or poplar.  Each tiny root hair intertwines with complex meshwork of fungal filaments giving the tree

Mushrooms and Moss

enhanced access to water and nutrients:   “… fungal filaments or hyphae have an intimate association with the outside of small roots of trees and greatly assist water and nutrient uptake into the roots of these host plants. ….the fungal hyphae surround the root tips and

Puffballs and Leaves

invade between cells inside roots. These mycorrhizal hyphae are much finer than the root hairs, and greatly increase the surface area available for absorption of nutrients and water from the nutrient-poor soil. In addition, the glove-like covering of mycelium provides

Shelf Fungus on Stump, Fort McMurray Area

physical protection for the delicate root tips and also a barrier to the entry of soil microorganisms. In return, tree roots …. supply essential carbohydrates and amino acids … necessary for growth of the fungal mycelium and production of fungal fruiting bodies, the mushrooms…” (see “The Boreal Forest Ecosystem).

So the next time you take a pretty picture of a sunset lighthouse, think about the lives of the lightkeepers and their families.  Do some research.  Did the keeper save a sailor in the storm of 1885?  Did his daughter grow up the only child on a remote island, the wind and the gulls for her playmates?  You may find that the glow from the clouds is not just from the evening sun, but from the story that your picture tells you.

Note:  All images for this article are digital or Droid X cell phone images, as the few vintage camera photographs I was able to take in Fort McMurray are not yet developed.


Cripps, C. C.  “Mycorrhiza.” PNW Plant Disease Management Handbook.

Riesco, I. L. “Root Seeks Fungus For Long-Term Relationship.”  Taiga Rescue network.

University of Alaska, Fairbanks (Fungal Metagenomics Program).  “The Boreal Forest Ecosystem.”

University of Wisconsin, Madison.  “Boreal Forests, Alpine, and Tundra Biomes.”  Online course notes, Department of Botany.

Wikipedia article, “Boreal Forest of Canada.”

Wikipedia article, “Taiga.”


Wapasu Nights: On Being A Coyote in Canada’s “Man-Camps”

Wapasu Bus Lot, A Sloppy Day in Late Winter

Sometimes I find myself in a place where I’m sure there ‘is nothing to photograph. I am almost always wrong.

No matter how sterile or seemingly dull the environment, you can always find a story to tell and something to shoot!

The Bagup Room – a delicious piece of Newfoundland terminology, translated to the middle of the subarctic boreal forest and an oil boom that powers Canada’s economy. Past overall-clad figures in studded safety boots, I toss sandwiches, fruit and salad into a paper bag, then sidle past the exquisitely bored Somali guard in the dining room. Grabbing a tray from the pile, I shovel orange and grapefruit slices into my bowl, and line up for a neatly institutional square of omelet, followed by a dipper of oatmeal in a white china bowl.

Dawn at Wapasu Lodge

Exactly eleven minutes to eat breakfast, then through the Wapasu Lodge doors into a blast of cold in the predawn Arctic darkness. I shuffle out with a hundred more thickly bundled

Waiting for Brass Alley

figures to wait under the baleful red lights of Brass Alley. Lights flash red to green, and we

Brass Alley

shuffle forward through turnstiles. Out the Alley’s back door, we hurry in the glare of halogen lamps studding tall pylons into rows of buses whose diesels growl into the blackness.

Such is morning at Wapasu Camp in Canada’s northern Alberta oil sands. Researcher, doctor, photographer, driver of big trucks – I am now a Health, Safety and Environmental Trainer/Industrial Hygiene Specialist, working for Chicago Bridge and Iron, helping build Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake Oil Sands facility in Alberta’s subarctic North Country.

My “work week” starts around 10 am when Janie drops me off at Maple Bay, a secluded cove about ten minutes from our Vancouver Island home. I stand with my bag and computer pack at the end of the wharf amid houseboats and pleasure craft. Soon a small float plane buzzes into view and skims in for a landing. My bags are tossed on board, and

My “Other Car” – the de Havilland Beaver at Maple Bay

I climb in beside the pilot, trying to keep my knees from banging the stick and my feet off

Riding Shotgun on the Beaver

the pedals. We roar up the bay, climbing into the air over boats, forested islands, and summer homes, glide into Salt Spring Island’s picturesque little harbour to pickup a couple more oilfield workers, and 30 minutes later glide over Richmond’s crowded suburbs to touch down on the Fraser River. I walk three block to the commercial South terminal at the airport, and two hours later join a crowd of about 200 rugged-looking men and women heading north on Canadian North’s chartered

Boarding Canadian North at Albian Sands

jet. Two hours later, we are landing at Albian Sands airport, a strip of tarmac without even a control tower in the middle of the snowy Northern Alberta wilderness. We crowd into a row of snowy (or muddy, depending on the season) Diversified Transport buses for an hour’s ride to our respective camps, where we line up for our room assignments, haul our stored bags our of the luggage room, and settle down for a night’s sleep before an early morning and another bus ride to camp.

I rise at 4:45 every morning for 20 days, then pack my belongings off to storage for eight days at home. This is known as “Working a 20 and 8 cycle.” I later move to a “14 and 7” cycle – two weeks on and one week off – which is much more civilized. My days are spent in my classroom trailer, teaching orientation courses and introductory safety topics to electricians from Ireland, pipe insulators from California, and boilermakers from West Virginia.

Stereotypes paint construction workers as burly men with tattoos, beer bellies, and not much between the ears. The reality could not be more different. Many will surprise you with their depth of knowledge and thoughtful intelligence. Louis L’Amour, the famous writer of western and adventure stories, talked about the many self-educated men he met in the west (see Education of a Wandering Man, Random House, 2008).20130922_063748

The workers at Kearl are likewise a diverse and fascinating group. One shared that he is a fossil collector from the Maritimes. A self-taught, graduate-level amateur paleontologist specializing in the invertebrate fossils of New Brunswick, he corresponds professionally

The Guys I Teach

with museum directors across Canada and has original theories on the dating of the first land creatures. His talk of ancient eras and documentation of Eastern Canada land mass movements left me in the dust.

Kearl Lake from the Air (Anonymous Photographer, early 2012)

One big Irishman plans working hard and saving for five years, then retiring to care for his partner, who has multiple sclerosis. Another is an avid photographer who just got back from a job in Spain where he had time to photograph the Alps. A third, a quiet man from San Salvador, spent three years in the jungle as a guerrilla after union membership brought death threats. Scottish cement contractors mix with safety experts from coal mines in Nova Scotia, and rub elbows with insulators from Cape Breton. A wonderful cross-section of the world, their stories stretch from Canada’s blustery Maritimes to the forests of the West, opening little windows on Somalia, Ireland, South America, and China.

The classroom banter is the best part, and the camaraderie with my fellow teachers – language gets rough but I love working with these guys:

Morning chatter in the trailer (tasting my coffee carefully, making sure they didn’t sneak in an extra bag and supercharge it):

Me: Good morning, guys. Is anybody awake???
Big Mike, my fellow teacher, wanders through the class with his first cup of coffee.
Me: “Guys, this is Mike Knoll. He’s a very good teacher, but he is always insulting people.”
Mike: “Come on! I’ve been here a whole half hour, and I haven’t told anyone to fuck off yet!”

Ty (sticking up his hand): Can you tell me when we’re supposed to go home?
Me: I can’t tell you when to go home. Only your company can do that. What’s the matter? It hasn’t even started to get boring yet.”
Ian (Older guy with one arm, sitting next to Ty): Don’t be so anxious to leave. You’ll give the guy a complex.”

We all go around the room, introducing ourselves.

Big guy with black hair: I’m a trucker. I drive truck on the site. I’m 52, I live in Ontario, and I got ten kids and one foster kid.
Me: You’re going to be up here a long time. Those little beggars are expensive. By the time I discovered that, it was too late. You must have a big house!”
Big Guy: Seven rooms. It’s not too bad, except when the girls all get on the rag at the same time. Then it gets interesting! (Grins) When they get on each other, I just tell them to shut the fuck up so I can watch television.”

Paul (tallest, skinniest guy I’ve ever seen, wound up like the Energizer Bunny): “My name’s Paul. Everybody calls me Paul F. That’s for “Paul F…. Welder.’ I got my five rules to live by. They’re tattooed on my arm (and they are).
Me: “Meet me later. I want to photograph your arm.” And I do.
Paul’s T-shirt is pink. The front of it says “All my black shirts are dirty.”

I introduce myself part way through the introductions, show pictures I’ve taken, talk about my cameras, our time in the mountains of Kentucky, and the walks and images I take here in the marshes.

Paul (privately, afterward): “Hey, I know all the trails around here. I’m a bootlegger.”

One guy is a guitar collector. One spends his money to travel the world. Ian is an underwater photographer.

Next lecture – My other fellow teacher, Libertad, is from Peru but lives in Colombia, where she has to worry about workers who keep machetes in their tool bags when labor relations get touchy. She spent many years in mines high in the Andes. She’s great on getting the guys moving and doing role playing. Have you ever seen a dozen big, whiskery construction workers up on their feet like a bunch of kindergarten kids, acting out the two-arm hand signals for moving a crane the size of a house???

And so it goes….

Life is never dull up here…

Wing 39, Wapasu East

The people are fascinating, but the place? Wapasu in the winter can only be described as bleak and institutional. Rows upon rows of barracks-like prefabricated buildings fill the skyline of the Arctic night. There’s no doubting their usefulness and the speed in which they can be constructed and taken down again, but visually they leave a lot to be desired. Corridors, gray and blue and lined with aluminum siding, stretch into the distance, pockmarked with endless rows of doors, differing only in their numbers. Workers are camera-shy, and photographing people seems like an intrusion. In contrast, the Kearl construction site is fascinating, with enormous yellow cranes rearing starkly upward in the morning sun, and flames burning balefully in the darkness to heat huge vessels about to be welded – but photography is forbidden. I am reduced to scattered pictures taken unobtrusively at camp with my Droid X smartphone or an old Canon point-and-shoot.

Evening At Wapasu Camp

Yet as I walk evening after evening around Wapasu, its wings rearing like huge fingers out of the snow, illuminated by the halogen glare, I see that night and the light lend it a stark, monolithic beauty. Inside, the corridors, if institutional, are striking in their symmetry. I begin to experiment with my Droid and camera. As I become one with the human river flowing through the turnstiles and into the buses in the Arctic darkness, my Droid sneaks almost by itself out of my pocket. I begin to snatch profiles of huddled figures silhouetted against Brass Alley’s red glow, and try frame after frame to catch movement as workers hurry for buses.

After a Long Day – Back to Camp

As Wapasu becomes my home for three weeks per month, I bring my favourite framed photographs. Pastel rugs decorate the floors, and vintage cameras crown my armoire, together with loving cards from my wife. I come to realize that the camp is warm and cozy on the inside, with a Tim Horton’s and a little general store. Meals in the dining room include prime rib, Cornish game hen, an immense spectrum of desserts, and many varieties of salad. Pool and table tennis are available. Decor is austere and prefab, hauled-in-by-a-truck-and-bolted-together institutional, but housekeeping is excellent, the staff are friendly, and we can decorate our rooms to our taste.20131110_103249 - Copy

Much to learn, and I have joined a culture unknown to most of the world. Meet the rodbuster”” – he cuts and bends rebar for concrete foundations. The “rigger” connects the cable for cranes that lift tons of steel. Zoomer stops by my trailer – he drives a “Zoom-Boom”, a contraption like a forklift on a huge extendable arm, mounted on four enormous

Teaching fall Protection – My friend and fellow instructor Libertad

tires, and capable of lifting loads forty feet in the air onto scaffolds and elevated work sites. I learn about – and then teach – scaffold safety and the physics of falling wrenches. Life is not dull. A pile driver piston fractures on Thursday; the top fragment blows out of the cylinder and 300 feet into the air, landing at the base of the driver: 16 inches diameter, 30 inches long, and 2500 pounds of solid steel that misses everyone because of well-designed safety barriers.

I learn more about my new construction culture. Brass Alley? A long trailer, studded with red lights and and multiple doors with turnstiles, no brass within miles, and it is called Brass Alley? Intrigued, I investigate, and find threads linking me to builders and miners of the last century. “Brass”, dollar-sized brass discs, were issued to miners and builders as a method of timekeeping on mines and large projects before the computer age. Each miner would “brass in” – collect his token – as he passed through the gate of brass shack at the beginning of the shift. A missing token at the end of the day meant a miner unaccounted for (see The Brass System).

The origins of my new safety profession are written in the blood of miners and workers. Hillcrest, Alberta, 1914 – 189 dead, 400 children fatherless. Westray, Nova Scotia, 1992 – a small Cape Breton community changed forever from “incompetence, mismanagement, bureaucratic bungling, deceit, ruthlessness, coverups, apathy, expediency and cynical indifference.” It is no wonder that my bible, the summary of Alberta’s safety legislation, is called “The Red Book.” Each dry law and code traces back to a miner buried, a hand lost, or a life changed.

Evenings are for dinner, work on my web site, and walks. In winter, the latter are adventures. Wolves are about, the largest about 150 pounds, requiring a canister of bear mace that bounces on my hip. Breath congealing at -17 Fahrenheit, my snowshoes sink into the powdery snow as I break trail up a seismic cut. I must be adventurous; 7,000 people in this camp and I am the only one out in the woods tonight. I have one mysterious friend who has gone before me, their narrow cross-country skis leaving tracks into the Arctic darkness. The tracks turn right into the forest, and I follow, my light catching snowy jewels off the stunted arctic spruce as the trail snakes through a miniature frozen lake, mounds of snow gleaming in the brilliant beam. In my hidden lake, I take refuge from the industrial glare in pools of frosty darkness between the spruce and tamarack.Despite the industrial-grade camp lights and institutional setting, walking the forest roads near Wapasu can be a surreal and beautiful experience. Over the snow-crowned tips of the spruce, the horizon is studded with pools of pearly white light, gleaming off the low-hanging clouds. Visible from space, these opalescent pools of light mark other camps and claims surrounding Wapasu – Firebag to the west, CNRL (Canadian Natural Resources Limited) to the north.

Oil sands from Space

Despite being huge mines and industrial complexes, their glows dot the horizon like pearls on a necklace.

As my surroundings soak into my consciousness, surreal and beautiful images begin to coalesce out of the harsh industrial lighting. Like the upturned brushes of some giant boreal artist, a grove of leafless white poplars gleams in the light cascading from the

Poplars, Jupiter, and Aldebaran, Wapasu Camp

camp. A tripod improvised from a cardboard box and a pile of snow captures their glowing crowns, with Jupiter and Aldebaran suspended above. Next rotation, I return with a huge old Mamiya tripod. A monstrosity at home, in Wapasu, it is perfect, with long legs that Wapasu, Winter NightWapasu Camp from Forest Snowshoe Trail
disappear three feet into snow and still leave me plenty of tripod for my little camera. Lugging its bulk one-handed with my poles in my other hand, I set out nightly. Prowling the margins of ugly snow piles, an abstract of shadows paints the fresh snowy surface, their

Snow Shadows 01

darkness piled layer on layer. As I walk, I have not one shadow but four, with long stilted legs and a head lost in forest. Farther on, roadside snow mounds are an abstract in

Long-Legged shadows

crystalline lines and deep shadow. The play of halogen light and shadow creates many abstract shapes, creating images of stark simplicity. A single twig in a snow bank stands out, silhouetted against a band of black shadow. At each stop, my little Canon is dwarfed on its huge mount, but its shutter clicks faithfully – until the batteries and my naked fingers succumb to the cold.

Twig and Shadow

An anomaly among camp dwellers, my sanity is questioned: “Man, you’re crazy…There’s animals out there!” Likewise, there is much negativity about camp life. Google Earth’s citation on Wapasu is filled with comments like “This place sucks” and remarks on the terrible food.

My Room at Wapasu

Like much of life, Wapasu is what you make of it. Consider the coyote. One of the most successful animals on the planet, the coyote thrives from the blistering Mexican desert to the frozen tundra of Alaska. He can be found in and around most large North American cities, where he will cheerfully make off with your garbage or Fluffy the cat to feed his mate and pups. His secret? He is amazingly, wonderfully, adaptable. In my own way, I am a coyote in this austere place, making a den for myself and finding a way to grow, flourish, and pursue my art within the Gulag. On the bare walls of my little room, I improvise clips over moldings to hang my artwork, scrounge colourful old mats from my basement, and cut bulrushes from a ditch to make a corner flower arrangement. Vintage cameras adorn the dresser, together with cards from my wife. Audio books play on my computer, and my austere room suddenly feels like home.

Be aware, however, that this adventure requires preparation, and does not work for everyone as well as it has for me (see Geoff Dembicki’s “Oil Sands Workers Don’t Cry“). Being up at four or five am daily and working a 10 or 11 hour day is tough, especially if you are hanging tank insulation at -30 degrees. Heart attacks are not uncommon, though numbers are hard to come by. One worker dropped dead at the table in the east wing while I was enjoying my trout in the west dining room. Isolation is hard, and you need to plan for ways to feed your spirit. The process is especially tough with young families, and fathers or mothers who cannot be home. Just getting sleep can be a struggle, and fatigue feeds depression. One worker’s significant other called him in the middle of a class to demand a divorce. A nurse told me that many strong, superficially tough men have closed her office door and burst into tears. One needs to go into this experience with an eye on one’s health: take favourite hobbies, music and books, get exercise, choose healthy options in the food line, socialize, talk with your family about managing separation and child care. It can be a great experience – or a miserable, lonely time.20130925_111038

But if you can adapt, it can be a good life. One red-haired young ex-schoolteacher said, “This is fun!” Apprentice pipefitters praise the experience: “Man, I’d never get to do this stuff in Toronto!” Another schoolteacher, driving a house-sized heavy haul truck, said “I made my year’s salary in three months.” Humour helps: “Kearl Correctional” hoodies are common. A crane operator’s T-shirt blares, “Heavy Lifting Starts at a Million Pounds.” One hefty fellow’s back says “Fat people are harder to abduct.”

So each night, I strap on my snowshoes to visit the jewel-encrusted tamaracks and firs. And once again, almost without my willing it, images climb through the lens of my camera and onto my film. No matter where I go, or how unpromising the place, they find me, and I must take them home and look after them.

There is always something to shoot.

Rand at Kearl

Postscript: My kids saw my Wapasu images and asked, “What did Dad do to get sent there???

Note: These images are all digital, taken with a Motorola Droid, a Samsung Galaxy 4, or a small Canon A610 point-and-shoot on Aperture Priority.

Bill Carter, Master Jeweller

Bill Carter, master jeweller

Wandering down the narrow, branching streets of old downtown Nanaimo will take you past the ornate stained glass of Bill and Jean Carter’s Bastion Jewellers.  Bill …”practices traditional jewellery making the old-fashioned way. He carves master models out of wax to create custom designs then hand-fabricates the piece which gives him the freedom to make exceptionally beautiful, high-quality finished jewellery. Whether it’s a favourite logo, ring design, or an art-deco reproduction of an antique item, we create custom items in gold, silver, platinum, or a new blend of platinum-silver.”

Bastion Jewellers Storefront – A work of art in itself

Yet it is Bill himself who is the gem of the shop.  I first met Bill bent over his immaculate workbench, carefully dissecting the workings of a classic mens watch.  He was kind enough to sit for me. The little Ensign 16-2 is compact, and ideal for unexpected opportunities.  I had no tripod, so braced my body as best I could, firing off two shots at 1/25 sec., slow exposures for a 75mm lens used without a tripod.  However, one exposure was almost perfect, capturing Bill at his workbench.

This image will be part of a series on craftspeople in their workplaces, and is an excellent example of the genre known as environmental portraiture.  No, this does not mean placing your subject beside a polluted river.  Rather, it refers to the concept of photographing subjects where they work or where they spend much of their time, and its techniques differ sharply from standard portraiture.  In traditional studio portraits, the background is de-emphasized, and is frequently shot out of focus by using the lens wide open and blurring any background details.

In environmental portraiture, deep depth of field throughout the images is maintained by the use of small apertures, and the subject is shown in his world, with all of his or her surroundings in sharp focus.  Consequently, both the subject and his world are given equal weight in the image; one sees the subject as a part of his world and the activities that best define him. Following this idea further, David Peterson suggests having the subject actually perform his work to lend an extra layer of reality and impact to the image.  Wonderful examples of this genre, together with excellent suggestions on camera technique, can be found on DePaul University’s “Environmental Portrait” page.

The greatest master of this genre was Arnold Newman, who posed the famous in their favorite environments:  Georgia O’Keefe against a New Mexico bluff and a bleached steer’s skull, Igor Stravinsky at his piano, Woody Allen writing in bed.

Igor Stravinsky at his Piano. Arnold Newman, 1946.

Andy grunberg notes Mr. Newman’s best-known images were in black and white, although he often photographed in color. Several of his trademark portraits were reproduced in color and in black and white. Perhaps the most famous was a sinister picture of the German industrialist Alfried Krupp, taken for Newsweek in 1963. Krupp, long-faced and bushy-browed, is made to look like Mephistopheles incarnate: smirking, his fingers clasped as he confronts the viewer against the background of a assembly line in the Ruhr. In the color version his face has a greenish cast.

Industrialist Alfried Krupp, Essen, Germany, July 6, 1963. Arnold Newman

The impression it leaves was no accident: Mr. Newman knew that Krupp had used slave labor in his factories during the Nazi reign and that he had been imprisoned after World War II for his central role in Hitler’s war machine.


“Arnold Newman.”  Wikipedia article.

DePaul University.  “Environmental Portrait.”

Getty Images.

Grundberg, Andy.  “Arnold Newman, Portrait Photographer Who Captured th Essence osf his ubjects, Dead at 88.”.

David Peterson.  “Environmental portraits.  What are they?  How are they different?”

The Arnold Newman Archive.

The Packard Shutter

Zeiss Jena 150mm Barrel Lens Mounted on Noba Camera’s Lens Board. Note air hose and bulb for Packard shutter.

4″ Packard Shutter mounted on rear of Noba lensboard. Note air hose connection at bottom of piston.

Completing our discussion of shutters requires mention of a famous shutter that, although most commonly found on large format (4×5 in and larger) cameras, nevertheless holds a firm place in photographic history: the Packard shutter.

Throughout the late 19th and early to mid 20th century, many fine lenses were produced without shutters; in modern terminology, these are referred to as “barrel” lenses. They were often designed for aerial photography (e.g. the Kodak 7″ f/2.5 Aero-Ektar), as industrial process lenses, or for use on cameras with alternate shutter types. Some, such as the lovely East German f/4.5 Tessars (see above), the Cooke Anastigmats, and the Zeiss Jena Symmars and Planars, have excellent optical qualities. Many of these classic lenses are of considerable size and can be lethal if dropped from a high place. Fitting a conventional shutter to many of these behemoths is a daunting and expensive undertaking.

Enter the Packard shutter. There are some inventions that are so basic, functional, and foolproof that they remain essentially unchanged for decades. One is the humble mousetrap; in its familiar form – pine board, pieces of wire, and a spring – it has been decimating those little furry pests, essentially unchanged since James Henry Atkinson patented the original “Little Nipper” in 1897. However, nowadays, the use of pest control spokane services, as well as a myriad of others, makes it easier for pests to be caught and eradicated in modern homes.

Mousetrap Patent, 1920, similar to “Little Nipper”

The other is the Packard Shutter. The origins of this humble device are obscure. A product of Yankee ingenuity, it is variously described as dating from the Civil War or originating “…in the late 1800s…” Consisting of a thin, flat metal case with a central opening and three blades driven by a simple air-powered piston, it is still manufactured by the Packard Shutter Company of Fiddletown, California. Its virtues are twofold: it is indestructible and virtually foolproof, and is almost the only way to use many fine vintage lenses that lack shutters. The only other alternative would be to use a focal plane shutter-equipped camera such as a Speed Graphic, but the lens boards on Graphics are frequently too small to accommodate these large lenses. Though typically found on large format cameras and thus technically outside the scope of this site, the Packard’s place in photographic history is so well established that no discussion of shutters is incomplete without it.

The shutter consists of a thin (1/4 inch), flat metal case with a central circular opening, containing three coupled blades of black fibrous plastic approximately 0.020 inches thick. The mechanism is activated by a simple non-lubricated, air-driven piston connected to a flexible air hose and bulb. Shutters are available with central openings ranging from 1 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches; larger sizes, which can be custom ordered, find application in astronomy and scientific work.

The blade mechanism consists of two leaves, separately pivoted near the bottom of the case. These overlap slightly at the center of the opening, but do not quite cover the top of the opening. Simultaneously, a “guillotine” blade moves down to cover the remaining area. The air-activated piston moves the guillotine blade (sometimes called the “master blade”), which is coupled to one of the vertical leaves by a small rivet: this first vertical leaf is then coupled to the other vertical leaf by a second rivet. In this manner, movement of the guillotine blade opens or closes all three blades.

The Packard Shutter comes in two versions: the Packard Ideal No. 5 for time exposures, and the Packard Ideal No. 6, which has an “Instantaneous” mode with a single shutter speed of 1/15-1/25 second. The No. 6 is shifted from time to “Instantaneous” by means of a small brass pin that can be pushed in to engage the instantaneous mechanism.

The operation of the Packard Shutter has been described in exquisite detail by Gordon Coale:

“…This is my Packard shutter with the rear cover off. I’ve colorized two of the leaves to make it clearer.


On the left image, the upper red arrow shows the inserted pin. The lower red arrow is where the air piston pushes up. This works because all the pieces are pinned together. The upper yellow arrow attaches the piece being moved by the piston to the aluminum piece underneath and the black piece in between. The black piece is attached to the yellow piece at the lower right yellow arrow and the yellow piece is attached to the red piece at the lower left yellow arrow. As the pieces move they pivot around pivot points which are identified by the lower green arrows. The upper green arrow as a post that acts as a constraint to the black piece to keep it from moving to the left. The second picture shows where the aluminum piece is hitting the pin as the air piston moves it up. If the pin wasn’t there it would just continue straight up to open the leaves. This is where it gets interesting.


As the piston continues to move up the aluminum piece is slid right as it moves up the pin. This slides the pin that has been moving the black piece up out of the black piece. The pin inserted from the back is now in the notch of the aluminum piece and the leaves are open. As the piston continues up the aluminum piece starts to rotate around the pin and the left end of the aluminum piece is now pushing the black piece down which causes the other two pieces to close.


The air piston has moved to its highest position and the leaves are closed. Releasing the bulb causes the piston to go down and the aluminum pieces moves down and the spring pulls it back into the indent on the black piece ready to be opened again…”

The Packard Shutter is typically mounted behind the lens, but can be front-mounted on the larger lenses such as this Zeiss lens:

Packard Shutter Front Mounted on Zeiss Lens. Photo courtesy of S. Grimes.

In the intermittent mode, the shutter speed of the Packard is usually considered to be 1/15 – 1/25 second with a determined squeeze of the bulb. There are references that suggest techniques for controlling the air flow for a variety of other settings. For timed exposures, the Packard company recommends the following procedure:

“The usual operation is to hold your thumb over the hole in the end of the bulb, squeeze it, count off the time open then allow the bulb, with your thumb still over the hole to “suck” back and close the blades. Releasing your thumb from the hole will allow the blades to remain open indefinitely; they can be closed by squeezing the bulb, covering the hole and allowing the bulb to open causing the piston to be drawn back, closing the blades.”

Were the Packard to be used on a roll film camera, the limited range of shutter speeds would be a significant limitation. However, in large format work where images are typically taken at small apertures and exposure times are longer, being limited to 1/25 second or longer is a restriction that one can usually live with, particularly if the Packard allows the use of an unusually fine lens.


Bellis, M. “History of the Mousetrap.”

Coale, Gordon. “Of Packard Shutters and Barrel Lenses.” Electric Edge web log entry, June 5, 2005.

Holmes, G.S. “Mousetrap.”

Kerr, D.A. “The Packard ideal Shutter.”


Breaking the Rule of Thirds: Alberta Evening

Alberta Evening

It is amazing how strongly the Rule of Thirds is wired into the human neural network.  Cropping pictures, I slide the margins this way and that, looking for unusual ways to place my subject and compose in an interesting and unusual way.  Yet in almost all cases, the subject clicks into one of those magic four points, and the image suddenly gels and gains strength.  There’s no logical reason why those points should work, but they do, and most of my pictures have the subject situated according to this classical rule of artistic composition.

So it is with great pleasure that I take a picture where I can throw away the rule of thirds, emphasizing instead the wonderful symmetry of an image like this Alberta evening panorama.  Out exploring north of Calgary, I topped a ride to find this scene laid out in front of me.  Composing the image on the ground glass of the Graphic, I noted how the horizon and the road formed a perfect cross.  The scene called to me to bring to life the symmetry of the vertical and horizontal lines, and when I placed I placed their intersection at the exact center of the picture, the image came to life.  Waiting until the shadows lengthened and the colors picked up the glow of the setting sun, I took one image on Kodak 160VC with the semi-wide angle 68mm Schneider Angulon (approximately equal to a 35mm lens on a 35mm camera) followed by a record shot with the Droid X.

This is the preliminary Droid cell phone digital image.  The film image with the Crown Graphic will replace it as soon as it is ready.