A sampling of Szarkowski’s wisdom

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Read this while leafing through my copy of “William Eggleston’s Guide”.

[I] have observed that the poem or picture is likely to seem a faithful document if we get to know it first and the unedited reality afterwards – whereas a new work of art that describes something we had known well is likely to seem as unfamiliar and arbitrary as our own passport photos.

 – Szarkowski, introduction to the Guide.

The Cruelty of the Single Frame

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Photography, as practiced by many street photographers (myself included), is an inherently cruel act. The process of extracting a person or people out of their context, placing them, disoriented, on a frame of our choosing, robs them of their humanity to a certain degree. They have no recourse to redress their grievances. There is no conversation; no back and forth; no room for discussion. The photographer, by the simple act of releasing the shutter, has all the power in this relationship. Yet, we cannot help but abstract the essence of life in a fleeting moment, if for no other reason than our own pleasure. Perhaps we even have grandiose dreams of “capturing the quintessence of an age”; to represent for posterity what it means to be alive in our time. Like the old masters we want to be revered for our unerring and astute eye, distilling that which makes now, now. At least these are the tales that we can tell ourselves.

Shooting Action

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Some time back, I read that a sports photographer practiced his craft by photographing sports telecast. I decided to try something similar. I’ve always wanted to photograph dancers, but I don’t know any and haven’t been able to become familiar with any. So, I tuned in to Mezzo (a channel on cable) and shot a contemporary dance performance. I don’t know enough about the choreography to predict the action, so it was a lot of misses. These below, I consider to be the hits.L1008628L1008622L1008612

Dance is beautiful.

Off-Topic: How I Met Your Mother Finale

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This post was originally written in May 2014, but never published. Here it is.

I have been watching HIMYM for years now. I was first introduced to the show by a friend, though I initially brushed it off as another Friends wannabe. It wasn’t until I caught some re-runs on TV in 2009 (first episode I remember watching – “No Tomorrow”) that I started following the show closely. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to the antics of all the characters, and I can say that the Ted/Robin storyline is a bust. The whole build-up to meeting the Mother was too long to be swept under the rug in a simple 5 minute musical montage.

On the other hand, I think the real masterstroke in this finale is that they spent a whole season talking about the Barney/Robin wedding (the relationship between those two was always a stretch), only to have them divorce in the second half of the finale. Those two were never meant to be tied down, and sad though it may have been, Robin should have remained single. In trying to have closure for the Ted and Robin, the creators of the show neglected that life is full of regrets. That would have been a fitting, if imperfect, ending, for what is, in many ways, a coming-of-age-show.

Perspectives on Polaroid

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When one hears the term Polaroid, he invariably thinks of the iconic white-framed images made with poor quality, plastic cameras. If you were into pop music in the early 2000s, you may also remember Outkast’s admonition to “shake it like a Polaroid” (to which Polaroid Corp. released a response, urging users not to “shake it”).  Since the heady years of the Aughties, a few things have happened in the world of photography. The first and most significant is the advent of digital imaging. While it may seem to younger photographers that these two media occupy different spaces, it wasn’t that long ago when the only way to get visual feedback on your shots was to shoot a Polaroid, especially of the peel-apart variety (more on that later). The second and more important fact is that Polaroid Corp., insofar as it being a real, analogue photography company, ceased to exist. With that fact came the sad adulteration of the long tradition of innovation, with the “me too” branding of everything from Instax cameras to media players with the Polaroid name.

The Genius of Land

To truly understand the legacy of Polaroid, one has to re-visit the storied history of its company and founder, “Dr.” Edwin Land. The man essentially invented instant photography de novo, for nothing like it existed before. He successfully pioneered the peel-apart roll and pack film formats, and the one-upped himself with the integral film system that many associate with the Polaroid name. In fact, when i say that these pictures are iconic, I mean it in more ways than one. For, on many computer operating systems, the Polaroid is used as the icon for photographs, thereby underlining the ubiquity, influence and importance of his invention. Right from the start, the plan was to achieve what was, in Land’s words, “manifestly impossible”. Photography at that time meant shooting a roll of film, and developing it after, say, 36 frames, a process that can take days. What he set out to do was to create a new way of photographing, and a new way of thinking about photography. Instant photography was to be every bit as good as the conventional type, but faster. Part of Land’s genius is in making instant photography look so simple, when in fact the chemistry and physics behind it is truly mind-boggling. To even proceed from black and white to color instant photography took more than a decade, yet we all take it for granted now. He was also very in tune with the needs of the end user, refining the process from the roll film (which required the user to tear the film off a roll), to pack film (individual sheets of film, but still required the users to deal with trash coated in caustic goop) to the integral film formats (completely integrated film development pods, with no waste material).

Dedicated to Quality

Despite its latter reputation as the format for poor quality, throw-away images, the result of cost-cutting measures that paired the superlative films with truly awful plastic-lensed cameras, Land intended for the film to be used by professionals. This fact was most clearly borne out by his employment of Ansel Adams as technical adviser to the film development effort. Adams reciprocated the support with meticulous notes on how to improve the films, facts that were gratefully received by those at Polaroid, in particular Land. He also created a collection of great photography that was sadly auctioned off as part of the bankruptcy proceedings (a development that did not sit well with the artists who contributed the pieces, with the understanding that the collection would remain as a whole in perpetuity). There were also fewer than ten 20×24 inch Polaroid cameras constructed that were truly works of art in themselves, which showcased the beauty and power of an instant, life-sized portrait. The efforts of Land did not go unnoticed, as portraitists flocked to Polaroid to use its films in their own work. So essential were these films, that practically every self-respecting camera maker released a film back that could be used with the peel-apart packfilm format. And so these remained Polaroid’s best and most loyal customers until digital came around and offered an alternative to what we now call “chimping” – the act of post-viewing a shot to decide if the lighting, set-up etc is appropriate to the artists’ vision.

Personal Experience and Conclusion

Even as the company spiraled out of control, I started to look into instant photography. My first encounter was through a packfilm camera called The Reporter. At that time, there was so much confusion over what film would fit into which camera that it took me weeks to sort out what’s what. One website was instrumental in this endeavor, namely The Land List. I’ve since gone on to procure a bunch of Polaroid 600 cameras (integral film plastic cameras that many, sadly, associate with the Polaroid name), a bunch of SX-70s (aka Dr. Land’s Magic Camera), lots of film backs for Hasselblad, Bronicas, 4×5 cameras, etc, and also a Polaroid Model 150 (roll film camera). While integral films can still be purchased from The Impossible Project, they tend to be experimental, and I sold practically all of them before moving back to Singapore. I do have some 4×5 sheet films (specialty films for large format cameras) and Fujifilm packfilms (FP-100C, FP-3000B, FP-100B) that still work great. I’m just glad that I was able to shoot with some of the last films ever made by Polaroid Corp, before its ultimate demise. The spirit of Land now lives, ironically, in the Instax line by Fujifilm which was allowed to sell their films because Polaroid had little interest in selling in Asia (Kodak wasn’t nearly as lucky). May it live long and prosper!

The Dilemma of a Singaporean Darkroom

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As you may know, I moved back to Singapore from Baltimore about 6 months ago. We’ve since moved into our new place, which has a good-sized storage closet. My wife has graciously allowed me to annex half of it to use as a darkroom, but now I have a problem. The room can either be light-tight and almost gas-tight, or not. There were two ventilation holes to the room, which should have been sufficient to get the air moving. Unfortunately, we had one sealed up for aesthetic purposes, leaving just one. Now the single ventilation hole gets almost no air in (it’s basically a dead-end, and nothing comes in or goes out), while allowing ample light from the living room into the closet. To make matters worse, the shelves that we have installed came with particle boards, that, unbeknownst to me beforehand, outgasses what appears to be formaldehyde, which reaches unbearable concentrations with the door shut. What I need now is some way to split the single ventilation hole in two, with an exhaust fan attached to one, and using the pressure generated to draw in fresh air. Does anyone have a way of doing this easily? IMG_1363

Leica iiic and 5cm 50mm f/2 Summitar for sale

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Selling this set. Camera has new leather (from camera leather). The camera is in good cosmetic condition. Slow shutter speeds (< 1/20 secs) is inaccurate, but the camera works fine otherwise. The lens is in fair condition, but due to the actions of the previous owner it no longer collapses (the collapsible barrel is damaged, but when extended it works just fine). SGD 699

White Dress or Blue Dress – Solved.

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So, the following picture has been making the rounds today, and well-nigh breaking the internet.

Blue or white?

Blue or white?

The question is: Is this a white dress with gold stripes, terribly underexposed, or is it a blue dress with black stripes, terrible overexposed? I had opted for the former, especially after I found the white version of this dress. However, the answer, as it turns out, is neither over- nor underexposure!

The white version of this dress exists, so the color of the dress is inconclusive without more investigation.

The white version of this dress exists, so the color of the dress is inconclusive without more investigation.

The first step towards answering this is to make sure that your screen is somewhat color-calibrated. In other words, use an ICC profile, as discussed here. This will take out much of the variability.

Next, consider the features of this photo. It has what appears to be an over-exposed background, no clear reference point (e.g. a white board, a human face, etc) to which one can calibrate his/her vision. This is the crux of the illusion.

If you were to look at the histogram, you’ll find that it is somewhat overexposed, but not terribly. However, any photographer can tell you that JPEGs (or any other popular formats) are typically compressed, so that it fits on an 8-bit (x 3 channels) file. That means that once saved, pushing the image around is going to cause a lot of artifacts, not all of which can be easily understood.

I suppose this was what happened, when somehow this image was adjusted (perhaps to show the fine details of the lacey bits?).  I imported the JPEG into lightroom and played with it a bit, and found that a small -0.5EV adjustment was necessary to bring in some highlight details (but not much, due to the compression). Next, white balance was adjusted to get the most natural colors (e.g. not overly yellow or purple or green). The resulting image looks like this.

Blue dress.

Blue dress.

Since black is never truly black, excessive yellow compensation made the lace details look brown. Again, the key to the confusion is the lack of reference objects to calibrate the image. If you shoot film or manual white balance on your camera, you will be VERY familiar with the greenish fluorescent images, the bluish shadows, and the reddish/orange indoor (tungsten) images. But our eyes almost never notice these except in the most extreme of cases. Such is the wonder of human vision!

Quote

Darkroom, edited by Eleanor Lewis

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In our daily lives we are bombarded with photographs. They leap out at us from the pages of our newspapers and magazines, from billboards on the highway, from junk mail that arrives every morning. The sheer number of pictures to which we are exposed is overwhelming. We cease to take them in. Artists who choose the camera as their means of expression risk being absorbed unless their statements have sufficient impact. The content of a photograph is almost always determined at the time of exposure. But it can be strengthened and refined or even destroyed in the darkroom. This potential for success or failure makes darkroom technique of prime importance to any photographer.

– Eleanor Lewis, in the preface to Darkroom, published by Lustrum Press in 1977

Books Over Gear II

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Many months ago, I wrote about buying books over gear. I stand by those words. In fact, since that post, I have bought one camera (Ricoh GR Digital IV), and sold many (Kodak 8×10, Polaroid cameras, Olympus XA2s, etc). I’m still whittling down my collection, but in the meantime I have added many books to my collection. Before I talk about them in a future post, I just want to update that the Bruce Davidson three-volume collection, Outside Inside has finally arrived in my home after almost 18 months.

Bruce Davidson's Outside Inside, published by Steidl.

Bruce Davidson’s Outside Inside, published by Steidl.

Just to recap, the books were purchased in 2013, and sent to my sister’s home in Singapore. I had decided to buy them after loaning them from the Milton S. Eisenhower Library in Johns Hopkins University and absolutely loving them. It’s been difficult to arrange for them to be brought to my place, however, due to logistic complications. Now that they’re finally in my hands, I’m going to relish the chance to flip through this superlative collection. One thing I hadn’t fully grasped, though, was the sheer size of the books. They are so heavy that my shelves would probably not hold up. Good thing, then, that I had new shelves installed in the storage closet today! P.S. Part of the new shelving installation also serves as my darkroom. Stoked!