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.

References:

“Arnold Newman.”  Wikipedia article.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arnold_Newman.

DePaul University.  “Environmental Portrait.” http://facweb.cs.depaul.edu/sgrais/environmental_portrait.htm.

Getty Images. http://corporate.gettyimages.com/marketing/m05/edit_newsletter/index.aspx?language=en-us&gi=2&pg=11

Grundberg, Andy.  “Arnold Newman, Portrait Photographer Who Captured th Essence osf his ubjects, Dead at 88.”.  http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/07/arts/07newman.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

David Peterson.  “Environmental portraits.  What are they?  How are they different?”  http://www.digital-photo-secrets.com/tip/1982/environmental-portraits-what-are-they-how-are-they-different/.

The Arnold Newman Archive.  http://www.arnoldnewmanarchive.com/.

The Bride at the Summit: A Smartphone Photo Essay

The Bride at the Summit #1

On those rare instances when life hands you a wonderful scene, grab whatever you have that will make an image and use it!

The Bride at the Summit #2

Traveling to Calgary, (see The Phototrucker’s Blues), we left the Fraser Valley under leaden skies and a downpour that rattled on the roof of our van.  Rain turned to sleet and then snow as we ground up the steady climb to the summit of the Coquihalla Highway, avalanches spreading towering piles of mounded snow and splintered tree trunks beside the road, and gray mountaintops disappearing into the overhanging layer of soggy cloud.  An hour passed, and slush turned into walls of dirty brown snow walling both sides of the highway.  Finally, the clouds thinned, and an isolated rest stop loomed out of the snow.  Gratefully, we stopped and unpacked sandwiches and celery sticks.

As we relaxed, contemplating the overcast and gravel-stained walls of snow, into this gloomy landscape scooted a small white Nissan.  My eye was caught when a young Asian man in a neat blue vest and slacks hopped out, brandishing a bouquet of flowers and a camera.  The bouquet was enough of an anomaly in this dreary landscape, but his

The Bride at the Summit #3

dark-haired female companion then leapt out of the car, clad in a white wedding dress, and scampered down an aisle between grimy snow mounds.  My celery stick hit the floor, I grabbed the nearest camera (the Droid on my belt), and catapulted out of the car.

The Bride at the Summit #4

Like an exotic flower in a wasteland, the bride posed beside walls of gravelly snow, dancing from spot to spot while her husband followed her with his camera and I hopped

The Bride at the Summit #5

from spot to spot to keep up, framing images and punching the camera stud.  Noticing me, the bride smiled and posed for me, and they handed me their camera.  I framed two quick shots, then caught their pose again with my cell phone.

The Bride at the Summit #6

As they leaped shivering into their little car and roared away, I had presence of mind to grab my card, thrust it through the window, and cry, “Email me and I’ll send you pictures!”.  Apparently, they married a year ago and had to delay their honeymoon.

The Moods of a Subject: Lakes Road Barn, Duncan, B.C.

Lakes Road Barn, Duncan, B.C.

A bag of M&Ms doesn’t last me very long.  Nor does chocolate – any species, type or recipe.

Many photographic subject as are as – or more – ephemeral than my bag of candy: rainbows, fleeting smiles, glimpses of sunset on a field of lambs.  However, there are some subjects that are persistent yet changeable.  These you can, and should, sample over and over again in their many moods.

I live within four miles of this lovely, century-old barn, and drive past it almost every day.  I first photographed it one lightly overcast winter’s day as the afternoon sun brought a glow to its doors, and diffuse light from the thin cloud layer perfectly filled in the shadows.  This soft, diffuse but slightly directional light is ideal for images of old buildings, lending personality and gently accentuating structure without losing detail in shadowed areas.  The lines of the roof and boards stand in contrast to the curves of the naked branches and the coarse bark of the firewood rounds.  This was captured beautifully on XP-2 by the f/6.3 Anastigmat lens of my 1928 Kodak – naturally, on a sturdy and stable Gitzo tripod with a cable release.

The Misty Barn

One early fall morning the next year, l awoke to find delicate veils of mist shrouding the hills and dense, cottony fog filling the valleys as the first rays of the sun filtered through the trees.  Grabbing my camera bag and tripod, I shaved while I drove past farmland and vineyards.  The mist thinned as I crested the rise where the barn sat, but there was enough to veil the farm and mute the distant trees.  The mist cooled the tones of the warm morning light, and the greens and orange-browns of the leaves called out for color film.  With Kodak VC160 in my newly-purchased 1950 Voigtlander Bessa I, I was able to capture this dreamy, softly-tinted image that is totally unlike the sharp lines of the winter black and white photograph.  With the rising smoke and trailer to the right of the barn and muted field and trees to the left, I elected to back away, including more of the surroundings, then in Photoshop cropped to a wider, more panoramic format.  Despite my love of sharp definition, I resisted the temptation to crank up the contrast .  Slight corrections in Curves accentuated the mist covering the distant trees and added to the diffuse quality of the whole image.

The barn and I are not finished; I am still awaiting next winter’s first snowfall, anxiously wondering how its blanket will soften the lines of the wood and erase the contours of the grass.  Will there be tracks in the snow?  Drifts piled by the door?  Crisp winter light or moody overcast?  I can hardly wait.

The Photographer As Predator

The Question

Let’s face it – every artist is a predator.   Writers use their childhoods, their mothers, their life experiences (Tennessee Williams and the sordid South, Hemingway and the Spanish Civil War).  Painters use atrocities (Picasso and Guernica) and their mistresses.  We all take from our surroundings and companions to feed our art.  Often, the result is beautiful and restorative.  Sometimes the relationship is symbiotic; consider Alfred Steiglitz’ erotic images of Georgia O’Keefe that built her career.  And often it’s downright parasitic – let’s not even talk about the National Enquirer and the paparazzi.

When I’m out on the street with my camera, I often see people in terms of images – and I’m hunting.  No jungle cat with an empty belly could be more alert for its prey.  The temptation is always to shoot someone – anyone – who would make a dramatic image.  This is the essential moral dilemma of the photographer: how far are we willing to go to make a statement?

Much has been written about this dilemma.  I think that this question was best summed up by Ruth Fremson, a photographer for the New York Times, who has see much suffering through her lens:

“I don’t set out to exploit another person’s suffering in order to make art,” she said. “I set out to tell a story, to explain a situation, to enhance viewers’ understanding of the world around us.

“The way a photojournalist can drive home the severity of a situation, for readers to fully understand them, is to make the most compelling image possible from an event — an image that will make someone stop for a moment, take it in and give the situation some thought.

“A photojournalist who has mastered the visual tools of composition, the use of light and color and the ability to capture the ‘decisive moment,’ will be able to produce a photo so compelling that it can be described as beautiful — or perhaps even as art — even if the subject matter is one of pain and suffering.

“Interestingly, museums around the world are filled with art that depicts human suffering, often based on real events in history…”

This does not keep artists’ work from generating controversy, however. Consider Shelby Lee Adams’ images of the the inhabitants of the “hollers” of rural Appalachia. His images are powerful and exquisitely printed, yet critics charge that “…his photography exploits the poverty and disempowerment in Appalachia and reproduces negative stereotypes…” (Wade,2009).

Berthie on Bed, Shelby Lee Adams, 1996

My impression is that those who do not want such images shown are ashamed of these people, and consider them ignorant hillbillies.  Yet are they not saying more about themselves and their own ignorance than about their less financially-blessed neighbors?  I have lived and worked in Appalachia, and know something of the dignity of the Appalachian people, their deep sense of family, their adherence to Christian values, and the incredible richness of their culture.  Those dwellers in the hollers who live in poverty and lack education have created a wealth of music, song, and crafts that is unique in the American experience. Those same black-lunged miners who peer out from Shelby Lee Adams’ portraits can be virtuosos at the bluegrass and miners’ laments that express their ability to survive and triumph over oppression.

Dewey Henson and Banjo, Shelby Lee Adams, 2010

Creativity and richness of experience more often spring from hardship, adversity, and suffering than from a comfortable life and a steady paycheck. Consider the black experience in the United States – what people could have been more repressed and downtrodden, yet they gave us the blues, jazz, rap, and rock and roll? Who, viewing the images of slave quarters and, later, slums and housing projects, would have predicted that America would become known by the music created from this legacy of poverty and degradation?

I struggle with these questions every day that I am on the street with my camera, and constantly try to balance my art with my sense of my subjects’ dignity.  Yet even in this process, often the most rewarding part of the experience is the connection with the people in my pictures.  I met this gentleman sitting in a doorway on Seattle’s Broadway, itself a rich palette of street cafes, college students, and many who spend their days on the streets.  Many of the individuals one meets on benches and doorways are obviously in pain, and if I photograph them, it is from a distance and in a manner that preserves their anonymity.  But many, if one stops to visit, are delightful and original.  This gentleman gave me a quick smile as I stopped to talk, happily agreed to have his picture taken, and even offered me a choice of messages on his sign!  I was late for a meeting, and unfortunately, could not stop to visit with him.

This image was taken with the Ensign 16-20 on Kodak VC-160, and appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Canadian Camera magazine.

References:

Adams, Shelby Lee, Blogspot blog. http://shelby-lee-adams.blogspot.com/.

Documentary Films, “The True Meaning of Pictures.” http://www.docurama.com/docurama/true-meaning-of-pictures-the/.

Estrin, James.  LENS- Photography, Video and Visual Journalism: Forum – Suffering and Art.  http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/16/forum/.

Johannes, A-M.  News Media’s Depiction of Human Suffering.  http://amjohannes.wikidot.com/news-media-s-depiction-of-human-suffering.

Reinhardt, M. et al.  “Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain.”  University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Wade, L. Online posting, “Sociological Images” blog, “Art and Representation”, Jan. 17, 2009. http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2009/01/17/art-and-representation/.

The Nap – An Exercise in Creative Cropping

The Nap

There are times when I’m creative because I’m creative, and there are times when I’m creative because I’m scrambling to fix an error or rescue an image.  This photograph is one of the latter cases, and I ended up being ripped away from my comfortable dependence on the Rule of Thirds.

The 1950 Ensign Selfix 16-20 is my primary street photography camera.  It is a superb little camera, hardly larger than a point-and-shoot, yet with the excellent Ross Xpres lens and a full range of shutter speeds.

I recently spent two wonderful afternoons wandering the streets of Seattle, and shot two rolls of film of street people and an itinerant street preacher with the Ensign.  Receiving my film scans two weeks later, I was dismayed to find misaligned images with space above the heads and feet cut off!  After many years of photography, I should be able to avoid cutting off feet!

A careful examination of the Ensign’s pop-up Albada viewfinder revealed it to be more sophisticated than I had realized.  Peering through the rear window, one sees the image, together with a superimposed pale inner frame which I had ignored, taking it to be a reflection of the eyepiece.  However, on examining the finder more carefully, it is clear that a white mask painted on the inner surface of the eyepiece is designed to reflect on the front finder

The Ensign Albada Viewfinder Mask

lens, forming the true frame for the image.  Research on Albada viewfinders indicates that this is how they work –  information that I should have known from the start (see References). These are the challenges in working with older cameras that make it rewarding – and frustrating!

Now that I had discovered how to use the finder, I was faced with the problem of two rolls of dramatic but misaligned images.  Some were past saving, but I began cropping in an effort to use the remaining images.  The sleeping street person was a problem; his

The Nap, Original Image

foot hit the edge of the frame, and he definitely could not be aligned according to the Rule of Thirds.  I decided to see if I could use the misalignment for dramatic effect.  I cropped from the top, removing the bus and as much of the upper extraneous detail as possible, while leaving in place as much of the empty space in the square as possible.  I then cropped from the left, removing the base of the trash bin, and leaving the unkempt sleeping figure surrounded by the empty space, the bases of trees and a solitary lamp post.  In this arrangement, the surrounding empty square emphasizes the isolation of the sleeping figure, and may be more effective than a traditionally-balanced image.

References:

Oleson, R.A. “Looking Forward:  The Development of the Eye Level Viewfinder.”  http://rick_oleson.tripod.com/looking_forward.htm.

Petrakla, P. “Petrakla Classic Camera Site: Albada Viewfinders.”  http://www.petrakla.com/TricksTechniques/Albadaviewfinders/Albadaviewfinders.html.

Rangefinderforum.com.  “How to Get the Best Results From an Albada Viewfinder.”  http://www.rangefinderforum.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-70726.html.