A Problem with Landscape Photography

I have friends and colleagues who are curators and gallery owners who are bored to  death with most present day landscape photographs and I think I know why. I got a hint of this while watching a landscape photography "how to" video on You Tube the other day. I am not going to name the teacher but it was about as bad as anything I've ever seen.

You've probably seen them. They sound like:

-The 10 best ways to shoot travel photos

-10 killer tricks for landcape shots

-The 10 best ways to bring back the photos your friends will love

-Leo Lapaluzi's 10 ways to make your landscapes snap

-10 Photoshop tricks to make your photos sizzle

and so on. 

They are usually sold and promoted as being by some photo "guru", some all knowing "master" of the landscape photograph. The last thing the world needs is another oversaurated Monument Valley sunset picture or another "awe inspiring" slot canyon photograph. This takes me down another path and that is the one that says you too can make pictures just like this with me as your "guide". Yuk!. The key is when the teacher shows you slide after slide of  "killer" pictures he made when he was teaching the workshop in "name your exotic locale". The idea, of course, is that you can emulate him (always a "him") by just paying the fee of something like $1500 for three days; lodging, meals and airfare not included. This results in 12 photographers standing in a row shooting the same great "scene". Give me a break. Trophy landscape photography. Art? Not in any definition I have. Actually, gives landscape photography a bad name, I think.

How about this. Go someplace, try to tune into what is there and what you can say about what is there. Try to really look and understand. Try to grasp an inkling of a place's history, culture, resonance and presence. Do some homework perhaps. Research a little. Make your pictures of place through some knowledge rather than first impression or to impress friends back home. Do "Art" proud. Share your innate intelligence with us. Make a contribution and work to extend the medium and also the viewer's sensibilities. Share freely but do not add just another generic cliché, please. Innovate if you can. Be fresh rather than standard. Emote but for Christ's sake don't be cloying, an overtly and sappy romantic, or assume that sterile minimalism means substance, for it probably won't. What's that leave you? Honesty, mostly. You can do a lot worse than being clean and straight and not obtuse. Not clear what something says very often results in it not meaning much. Take a risk but don't pander, condescend or disrespect your audiences' intelligence. After all, who anointed you as being superior?

Sorry. Kind of a rant here. I am not sure the World Wide Web has helped photography that much because it has produced a community of know-it-alls that are really terrible and who show off. So many more photographs now in this digital age means so many more bad photographs from bad photographers. Maybe because of the web we are subjected to more of it as it all can flow into our desktop by just Googling "landscape photography".

Where do you go to find good landscape photography? Sorry if this dates me but here: Frederick Sommer, Ansel Adams (yes, he was very very good), Joe Deal, Edward Weston and his son Brett, Robert Adams, Wynn Bullock, Edward Ranney, Eliot Porter, Andreas Gursky, Emmet Gowin, Linda Connor, William Clift, Eugene Atget, Henri Cartier Bresson, Harold Jones, Todd Walker, and on and on. So many greats. I am sure you have your own list.

As always, thanks for reading. You may respond via email here.

Topics: commnentary,teacher rant

Permalink | Posted August 28, 2014

In Final Form

I don't know about you but the photographs I make need some time to gestate, some looking at and thinking about them to understand what to do with them. Very seldom is the first impression the final outcome.

Where the "rubber meets the  road" is in making decisions as to how to print what I've shot. This will go through perhaps a few experiments. I might try a couple of  different sizes or pushing prints darker or lighter to see what that looks like. Or play with the color palette or tonality, amount of sharpening, type of paper (this is a big consideration for me) or even if I am adding any color to a black and white image. In darkroom days I used Kodak's Rapid Selenium Toner for every print. I did that to remove the slightly olive cast of many papers, particularly Ilford's Miulitgrade paper. In Silver Effex's Pro 2, a plugin I use often to make the conversion of my files to black and white, there is a toning setting for Selenium that I sometimes use.

At any rate, I wrote a couple of weeks ago about a day I had kayaking along the Connecticut River in New Hampshire (River Paddle). I liked very much some of the pictures I made as I walked up stream from the river to sit on a log and have my lunch. The stream was in late summer mode, lazy and with water trickling down it, much of its stream bed exposed. As I tried printing different approaches: conversion to black and white, a mat surface paper,  adding some color back in, I tried to resolve whether I had a full series or not. A series for me is a sequential body of work, usually from as few as 11 to as many as 30 or so. I didn't think that I did, although I could construct a rational around the actual "walk upstream" I took, wading through shallow water holding my camera at shoulder height so as not to get it wet. It wasn't   and presently isn't so much a full series but perhaps a few pictures with a single point: what mankind leaves behind, the detritus I  found on the stream bed. I had tried to contrast these pictures with the real purity of the untouched landscape in front of me but to be truthful this was a place that was not nature untouched at all. This was about as "pure" as it got:

Not so interesting perhaps and certainly a little passive or even generic, never what one wants of one's own pictures.

So, what have I done? I've abandoned the precept of the contrast between untouched and polluted in favor of these three:

Mankind's effect upon environment, clear and simple. Junk thrown away or left behind and a wall of granite blocks holding up a bridge over the steam.

There is loss and gain, of course. The loss is that most of the pictures I made that day (some of which I like very much) will likely never be seen or printed. Losing 40 or so breaks my heart a little. But what I gain is three photographs that have impact and punch, not diluted or compromised by others that may serve as only support around them. And yes, impact? Ah, what present day digital capture can do. The prints are 37 by 25 inches. One is printing behind me as I write this. 

They will be framed 45 by 34 inches. Hung side by side, the three in a row with the granite wall in the center? Killer. Epic.

A final caveat from someone who frequently prints quite large. When you print big, the print becomes very difficult to look at unless it is pinned up on a wall or framed. Sitting next to your printer, rolled up, is not a good way to determine if you have a good print or not. 

I print at home but will frequently take big prints to my studio to lay them out on a big table to view them.

If you don't have a big printer and are going to have someone else print your files for you, try to work locally, meaning choose a printer that will allow you to print out a few test strips to see how your file will look when printed large. Does it hold? Are you  pushing it too large? Has your sharpening strategy and file management been effective? Or are you just making an image larger with little consideration of how much more you are asking of everything you use: your camera, its ISO, the lens, the aperture and shutter speed, use of a tripod or not, the DOF and so on.

Printing large is like this: 

it's the bottom of the ninth

your team is 2 runs behind

bases are loaded

there are 2 outs

the count is 3 and 2 

Like that.

Topics: Printing,Color,Black and White,Northeast

Permalink | Posted August 22, 2014

Flea at MIT

Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers on the NPR radio show Car Talk have a category called the " Non Automotive Puzzler" that ranges far and wide from anything to do with cars.

For the most part this next post is "non photographic" in that it strays from some deep and heartfelt analysis of photographers' works, or mine, for that matter. Let's  call this a "quasi photographic post" as it does contain photographs, but uses photography descriptively rather than artistically.

It concerns something that's been going on over summers for years at MIT just up the street from where I live. It is the Flea at MIT and it happens every third Sunday from April through October. A geekier, more eclectic group will not be found anywhere else. It is something and I recommend it highly.

I went yesterday. More accurately,, I stumbled across it yesterday while riding my  bike to go work out.

Need a tube for that Heathkit stereo amplifier you built in the 60's? I know just the place.

The poster is for Morning Pro Musica, the WGBH radio show I woke up to for years hosted by Robert LJ. Lurtsema. He would start his classical music show every morning with bird song at 7 am.

All that stuff (above) came out of a Mini.

Need a new (sic) computer? Just the place.

I couldn't help but notice this guy had a parrot on his shoulder. He offered to take a picture of me with his parrot:

Later that same morning  I met up with my friends Liz and Mercedes for brunch in Brookline.

After, we went to my studio to look at work then drove back to my place so I could hand over my 8 x 10 camera to these two. 

Both work in large format film so I decided they should have it instead of it sitting unused in a closet gathering dust. And yes, talk about going back a ways, that is in fact a Zone VI 8 x 10 film holder bag hanging off Liz's shoulder.

Career update on these two friends and TA's: Liz has begun printing for a show she will have next March at the Danforth Museum in Framingham, MA and Mercedes is about to load up a truck in Brooklyn for the drive to Penland in North Carolina where she will begin a three year artist in residency in September. 

That 8 x 10 Toyo Field camera brought me career-crucial pictures for 25 years. I hope it continues in Liz and Mercedes highly capable hands. I look forward to seeing what they make with it.

Topics: Northeast,Color,Commentary

Permalink | Posted August 18, 2014

Teacher Rant

Apologies if it seems I am beating a dead horse but I  have one more thing to add to my series on the unsung heroes of the photo world: teachers.

I have written before about the teaching profession here.

Photo teachers are massively underutilized as portfolio reviewers. There, I've said it.

Let's play this hypothetical out. I am rich (or not), I've gone to art school and I like galleries so I buy one. I like photography, although I didn't study it, and so I decide my gallery will be a photography gallery. Right away I am making decisions about who to show, what kind of works I want on my gallery's walls and what artists I want to represent. I also am now being sought after to do portfolio reviews, both locally but also nationally. My qualifications are suspect at best as I am new to the whole process. Yet people are sitting across the table from me at reviews, showing me their work and wanting my say whether the work is good, merits attention and recognition, and whether I will give them a show in my gallery. I look like and seem knowledgeable and to be an authority but I am not.

Second hypothetical. I am a career photo teacher. I have been through undergraduate and graduate study in photography. I am well versed in the medium's history, its contribution to the modern fabric of our society, am up on current technology and lecture frequently about photography's impact, its pervasive nature, assumptions and misconceptions people have about it and whether student work is effective, beautiful, powerful or not. In fact I am a trained and career-based photography portfolio reviewer. I review student work daily and weekly, sometimes of intro students and often of senior or second year graduate thesis students. Lastly, I am very connected in my community for I often use local museums and galleries for my classes, invite curators, prominent artists and critics to speak to my students. I do not own a gallery nor am I sought after to conduct reviews even though, arguably, I am among the very most qualified to do so. 

Why? Because I don't have the position or the power to award an exhibition or to agree to publish a photographer's work.

I think this should change and I believe it may soon. Portfolio reviews are a fairly new system, devised to connect people with decision making authority and photographers looking to increase the exposure of their work. And it works, to some extent. This is how curators, gallery directors and publishers are now choosing work for exhibition or publication, for the most part. But talk to the really good reviewers and they say that most often they are ladling out advice and their opinions about the work in an effort to make constructive criticism of the work, not to award a show. Furthermore, they counsel the reviewee that this is exactly what they are doing. Now, go back to the hypothetical clueless gallery owner. Do you really want him/her advising you about your work? Or would you rather have a career professional looking at your  work, someone who is hugely qualified and experienced?

I believe that we are beginning to see a maturing of the portfolio review business, at least I hope so. After all, when someone gets their work reviewed it is a business transaction, with a client (the reviewee photographer) and the reviewer (the service provider).There is money exchanged. What is needed is a balance with those that can offer things like exhibitions with those that can advise the client best on the efficacy, relevance and worth of their photography, and make helpful suggestions about how to improve.

Come on Photo Lucida in Portland, Photo Fest in Houston, Paris Photo, Review Santa Fe, etc. I understand everyone who's coming to be reviewed wants a show, but for the vast majority the benefit is having someone really qualified, really good, reviewing their work. It's the photo teacher every time. It is a no brainer. Put more teachers in place in portfolio reviews and do it as soon as you can.

I am now finished with my Teacher Rant. Whew! Thanks for reading.

Topics: teaching,Commentary

Permalink | Posted August 15, 2014

River Paddle

Yesterday I drove from Boston up to the Connecticut River, the border between New Hampshire and Vermont. I hitched a ride using the service North Star provides up river several miles and put my boat in the water just above the covered bridge at Cornish to paddle back down river to where my car was parked. 

Warm air and water in mid August and only a few of us on the river. I paddled under bridges, watched  kids flying and somersaulting into the river on a tree swing, battled strong headwinds and stopped several times to photograph. In places it was so shallow you could walk right out into the middle of the river. It was glorious.

Here are a few of the pictures I made:

One of the stops I made was where a small stream flowed out into the river:

I paddled up stream as far as I could, got out and sat on a downed tree and ate my lunch, then headed up the stream for a ways, walking on rocks in shallow water, camera in hand, hearing a train go by on the New Hampshire side of the river but cut off from the world looking down making pictures. I found about equal parts of beauty and mankinds' detritus on the stream bed.

and finally, this supporting a bridge over the stream

here converted to black and white.

All this about as good as it gets: the day, the air, summer, being out on the water. This while unable to keep Robin William's suicide just a few days ago off my mind. I wasn't a big fan, as he was too frenetic and manic for me, but there were moments when you just couldn't believe what he was doing, so brilliant and so very funny.

I also liked some of the acting he did in movies like Good Will Hunting or Good Morning Vietnam or even Mrs. Doubtfire. What a talent and what a huge loss. 

Depression is awful. There has been some in my family. I think I have only really been depressed once, after I finished grad school a very long time ago. 

Imagine deciding to end it all and to not see the time yesterday along the river in northern New England as being worth living for. 


Topics: Digital,Featured,Northeast

Permalink | Posted August 13, 2014