The Image I Won’t Show

As a photographer, I shoot anything that moves.  Or doesn’t move.  Or might move onto a page in someone’s magazine.

But sometimes you have to be careful about what you shoot and show.  Really careful.

I recently spent a week in Miami at the 2009 Healthcare Globalization Summit.  As usual, I wandered the streets looking for images.  Returning each night to the parking lot, I was greeted by the pleasant Hispanic man in his 40s who manned the gate.  Slightly plump, with dark curly hair, a couple of days’ stubble, and a slightly rumpled T-shirt and jeans, he looked like any one of the thousands of Hispanic men who kept Miami running for the benefit of the richer and more privileged Anglos.

One night as I pulled  into the lot, he sat with his feet perched up on the desk, absorbed in his newspaper.  Illuminated by the overhead light, he looked like one of Edward Hopper’s images of night people.  On an impulse, I asked him if I could take his picture.  We struggled a bit with his fragmentary English, but eventually he got the idea, then smiled and assented.  Hurrying to my room, I loaded film into my classic Ensign 16-20 and arrived back with camera and tripod.

We began talking as best we could while I set up my equipment.  I came to understand that he was from Columbia.  Struggling to convey something to me, Eduardo (not his real name) became frustrated, pulled out a folder from beneath his paper, opened it, and laid it out for me to read.

I was surprised to have an asylum application appear before me on the first page.  Fascinated, I read on.  My anonymous Hispanic friend was a Colombian attorney from Bogota, had been active in Colombian politics, assisting in rallies aimed at attempting to free hostages held by FARC.

FARC Soldiers

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC), a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary guerrilla organization, has been the main protagonist in the in the ongoing Colombian Civil War for more than 40 years.

Originally established in the 1960s as a people’s movement in reaction to repeated and systematic human rights abuses by the US-backed Colombian government, FARC and its nonviolent political wing FARC-EP’s tactics have degenerated over the years into kidnappings, hostage-taking and political murders.  The group became involved in the cocaine trade during the 1980s to finance itself.

Losing its popularity, FARC has faced widespread criticism throughout Columbia, expressed recently through large rallies during 2008.  Eduardo, as an attorney involved in human rights cases, became involved in the public reaction against FARC.

Soon threats ensued, and a friend and associated disappeared.  His bloodstained body was found a few days later.  Faced by escalating persecution and the very real fear of kidnapping, torture and murder, Eduardo, his wife, and their three children fled to Miami and applied for political asylum.

However, as best I could tell from Eduardo’s fractured English, they didn’t run far enough, and threatening phone calls began again after they arrived in Miami.

So that is their situation- a young family, both parents trying to make enough money to survive in a country where they do not speak the language, and dealing with death threats while they wait to see if the government will grant them asylum.  Yet Eduardo was always cheerful, friendly, and helpful, giving no sign of the way his life is going.  Could I do as well?  I’m going to remember this the next time I start to worry about my bank balance.

I did take his picture.  It’s still on the undeveloped roll in my camera.  But I won’t put it on a web site where it can be seen in Colombia.  I’ll keep it for myself and wonder when I see it how this courageous man is doing.

A Perfect (Digital) Day: On Contemplation in the Creative Process

Rand at Mosquito Pass

Rand at Mosquito Pass

This a blog about fine art photography with vintage cameras. So why am I still talking about digital? Because digital helps me think. And, although “artistic process” is a hackneyed term, artistic composition is just that- a process.   And it can’t be hurried.   As a result, my little digital camera often helps me to work my way through the maze of images that might somewhere hold a great picture.

This week, we visited our two children, Justin and Shannon, and their families in Denver, and of course I packed my four favorite cameras and a bag of film with me.  Shannon and Pete, her wonderful and steadfast husband and companion, took me for a day in the high country in their off-road modified Jeep. We set out early in the morning, and the Jeep was soon clawing its way up boulder-strewn tracks amidst twisted pines and fields of Indian Paintbrush and alpine anemomes.  After nosing down a seemingly impossible slope into a rushing creek, the Jeep clambered up the bank and deposited us in front of a wonderful abandoned turn-of-the century mining camp.

The Mine at Mosquito Pass

The Mine at Mosquito Pass

The main building was a fascinating, dilapidated complex of weathered siding, collapsing floors, graying vertical beams, and vistas of encircling jagged peaks seen through gaping window frames.  It was a truly amazing subject– and totally overwhelming.

It is at times like this that I have the fantasy of a truly great photographer like Galen Rowell or Henri Cartier-Bresson walking in and snapping images that float directly onto the pages of Life or Aperture, while I wander aimlessly, totally unable to make any sense out of this visual cacophony.  I hope that I am wrong, and I hope that the great ones also struggled to extract succinct and definitive images from the world’s disorder.

I wandered through the ruins, framing image after image on the screen of my little Canon digital point-and-shoot, and gradually a few patterns began to emerge.   The collapsed wall siding of the overseer’s house formed a swirl of faded boards around a window framing  trees and alpine meadow.  An enormous, eroded pulley lay amidst a welter of beams and boards scattered like matchsticks across the hillside.

The window

The Window

We needed to cross the pass before dark, so before I had time to set up my Baby Graphic, it was time to leave.  The Jeep climbed higher into an alpine bowl surrounded by a ring of jagged ridges and crags like knife edges thrusting into the sky.  The meadow was scattered with the detritus of old mining operations- the roof of a collapsed cabin, pieces of wood, and a cable that ran from a ring at my feet up the side of a nearby crag.  Nearby, a field of rocks spilled across a flower-strewn meadow.  Once again, the images were scattered and fragmented.  What could I see that had line, form and color that would flow across a page and carry the eye with it?

Again, it was only with time that the images and the landscape began to soak into me.  As I sat on a rock munching my egg and olive sandwiches (a Barrett family favorite) my mind began to slow and absorb the vista around me.  I noticed the rocky track curving back down the valley and leading my eye up and over the pass behind the mine.  I saw the afternoon sun briefly painting a craggy peak  near the end of the valley.  I snapped a few quick images– nothing to show to a gallery, but enough to  remind me of the elements of the scene.

It was soon time to leave once again, and I still hadn’t opened my Baby Graphic– but I had a sense of the valley.  And I knew that when I returned next year, it  all might come together for me through my lens.  I took away some snapshots, and I will mull over these and my memories of the valley.  The lesson is to try to keep from getting  frustrated when great images fail to come together.  Sometimes  even the most spectacular and unique setting lacks the lines and shapes that will flow through your lens onto an 8×10 sheet  of photographic paper, and sometimes the elements of the most dynamic and striking image just need to wait until you can calm your mind and be ready to receive them.

The Great Digital vs. Film Debate

In this great debate, I think it is useful to look at the requirements of the situation you find yourself in when you are taking the picture. My fine art photography is mostly done with vintage cameras, primarily of the 1900s to 1920s vintage, so digital isn’t an option for me, but I also own and use a digital camera.

If one is debating the best picture obtainable when you have as much time as you need to compose and expose, then I think the answer comes down to preference and the subtleties of the image in each medium. Digital and film are both very good these days, but there always going to be differences in the way each medium handles highlights, tonal gradations, shadow detail, etc., etc. They are, after all, different media, and which you choose depends on how you like the feel of the image.

Personally, I like my hybrid approach of taking film and getting it scanned (I don’t have access to a darkroom), then processing it as a digital image. I then have the option of taking my negative to Moon Photo in Seattle for their lovely selenium half-tone printing, or processing it myself in Photoshop and being able to tweak subtle light values in Curves. I can get a quickie 1MB scan or go up to 40MB without having to invest a small fortune in an expensive digital camera. And I do have the advantage of the extended dynamic range of a silver negative.

If you want movements and sharp foregrounds and perspective control, then you need a view camera and, unless you are much richer than I am, you will be using film rather than a 2×3 or 4×5 digital back. I just bought and restored a 2×3 Baby Pacemaker Crown Graphic, and will be using the above hybrid film/scanning option for my negatives.

HOWEVER- when you need to take pictures quickly or review your results in the field, there’s nothing like digital. I do NOT use my Graphic for pictures of my two year old grandson; he moves too fast, and I throw out 50% of my images before they ever get uploaded. Similarly, if you are Art Wolfe next to a herd of rhinos or a reporter for the local paper, you need to know that that great image is really in the can when you head home.

I just had the experience of packing my view camera on a kayak trip to Meares Island, an internationally-acclaimed travel destination, and then never having time to set it up as our Haida guide toured us through ancient virgin rain forest. But I did get some nice shots with my Canon point-and-shoot. I went back two days later with my whole outfit and the light was terrible, but I did have my digital images. Unfortunately, most people aren’t sympathetic when you bitch about a beautiful sunny day and those damned bright shafts of sun in the shadowy forest!

And don’t forget about traditional/alternative photographic processes that are, in one way or another, film based. Check out Kerik Kouklis’ wonderful photos using platinum/palladium and other historic processes on

Once again, it all comes down to what you need and what you love to use. If it works for you, use it. As long as the result is a thing of beauty, it doesn’t matter how you got there.

Happy shooting, whether it’s grains or pixels.