Talking Creativity on The Creative Bar

If you can't get enough of me talking about creativity and the struggles around making on episodes of On Taking Pictures, here's a conversation between me and my friend (and outstanding pinhole photographer) Jon Wilkening for his podcast, The Creative Bar. Be sure to visit his show page for more conversations with makers and check out his photography zine, Tiny Plastic Box.
 

Bread and Paper - San Gabriel Baryta SemiGloss

For years, my favorite bread at Trader Joe's was what they called the "Tuscan Pane." It was a hearty bread, without being too dense — think of a cross between a good sourdough and a ciabatta. It had great flavor and texture, was perfect for sandwiches and toast (French or otherwise) and only used four or five ingredients. I was making my weekly bread run and I noticed something different about the look of my beloved Pane. I asked the manager about it and he told me that it was the same thing, and that perhaps it just came from a different bakery. I know my Tuscan Pane and despite having the same name, this wasn't it. It didn't look or feel the same and the ingredients listed on the back went from four or five to about a dozen. I mentioned this and again I was assured that it was the same, so I reluctantly bought a loaf and went on my way. Here's the thing, the new bread wasn't the same thing as the old bread. To be clear, the new bread wasn't a bad bread, it just wasn't the bread I wanted, loved or expected, regardless of being called the same thing. And that was the rub, the fact that they tried to pass off this other bread as my bread. If they had called it something else, that would be a different story, but they didn't. Not cool, TJ's.
I've been a fan of Red River Paper since 2009, when they were kind enough to sponsor some of the early Faded & Blurred photo walks. I became particularly partial to the Polar Matte, which has a great weight to it, does beautiful black and whites and if you love a matte finish is just an all around terrific paper. In 2012, Red River released a new paper called San Gabriel SemiGloss Fiber, which promised "the look of traditional fiber prints from the heyday of chemical darkrooms" (press release here). I used to love using fiber paper in my darkroom days — mostly Oriental Seagull and Ilford Multigrade — so the notion that I could get a similar look and feel from inkjet prints was very intriguing. I think I loved San Gabriel SemiGloss Fiber straight away. Much like the Polar Matte, it had a great feel — handling it felt like darkroom fiber paper. It also had a subtle texture and the print surface was just a tad on the warm side. Colors looked terrific but printing black and white is where — at least for me — this paper really hit its stride. 
A couple months or so ago, Red River announced a new "2.0" version of San Gabriel SemiGloss Fiber, partially renamed to San Gabriel Baryta SemiGloss. Hmmm. For those of you who may be wondering what Baryta means, it's basically a marketing term for the barium sulfate, barium oxide or barium hydroxide coating which allow for greater detail and expanded (potential) tonal range. Both the old and the "new" version shared the same barium sulfate variant, as well as the 100% alpha-cellulose base stock. On paper (no pun), they appeared to be the same thing, so I ordered a sample pack to be sure. When it arrived, the first thing I noticed was the feel of the paper compared to the 1.0 version. The new paper felt more like resin coated (RC) paper and less like fiber. Also, the surface texture was slightly different and the overall white tone of the paper lacked the "ever so slightly warm" quality that I loved about the previous version. Still, the proof is in the pudding — or printing — so I printed a few black and white and color photos on both versions, using the ICC profiles available on the Red River site. As I mentioned, the new paper is not as warm, but it's also what I would call "cool." It's probably neutral, especially when looking at it on its own. Color and detail look great, as do blacks and deep shadows. White there's nothing "wrong" with the new version, my initial reaction was that I preferred the look and feel of version 1.0. I called up the president of Red River, Drew Hendrix, and left a voice mail asking if he'd be willing to have a conversation about the new paper.

Color and texture of San Gabriel SemiGloss 1.0 (top) and 2.0 (bottom)

Color and texture of San Gabriel SemiGloss 1.0 (top) and 2.0 (bottom)

Drew was kind enough to call me back, and I asked him about some of the changes that led to the new 2.0 version. He said that for months they had experienced a growing number of quality-control issues with the mill that was making the 1.0 version. Unfortunately, the mill making the 1.0 version was the only source for that exact paper, so they were faced with a decision to either discontinue the line completely, or make what they determined to be negligible changes to the paper. The 2.0 version really came as a direct response to Red River wanting to be able to consistently deliver a high quality product. I asked Drew whether there was any internal discussion around renaming the new paper to something else, since for some customers (myself included) the changes were enough to qualify the 2.0 version as an entirely new paper. He said there were several discussions and he realized that for some, the changes would be more dramatic, perhaps even enough for customers to look elsewhere, overall the new version still embodied the spirit of the original — to provide the look and feel of a traditional darkroom paper.

I've got to say that I'm a little torn over San Gabriel Baryta SemiGloss. It's a nice paper, really nice actually, but I'm having a hard time liking it as much as the previous iteration. Maybe I miss the slightly warm quality or perhaps it's just me longing for the feel of a "paper of the past" that reminds me more of printing in a darkroom. I will say my prints look spectacular on the new paper. Blacks are rich and the tonal range is terrific. Do they look as good or even better than the old paper? Well, I guess that depends on you. I think if I had never seen or used the original version, or if they had called it something other than San Gabriel SemiGloss — with or without the addition of Baryta — none of these issues would be issues at all. But, just like the Tuscan Pane, I loved the original. That said, the more I print on the 2.0 version, the more I like it. In fact, it's what I'm currently using for prints in my store. The bottom line is that it's a terrific paper, not necessarily better or worse than the 1.0 version — just different. Moreover, the reason to move to a 2.0 version at all was to maintain a quality product for the customer, which I have to respect. Just so I'm not looking at stacks of print samples in a vacuum, I've done some informal focus testing among friends, printing the same images on both papers asking which one looks "better" (whatever that means) and surprisingly, the results have been split nearly 50/50. So I guess beauty — as well as what makes a "good" paper — really is in the eye of the beholder. 

I'd like to thank Drew for sending me some paper samples in order to put this review together and I encourage you to head over to Red River Paper to pick up a box of San Gabriel Baryta SemiGloss for yourself. If you're unsure of which paper may be right for you, they also have sample packs available, which include not only the Polar Matte (still one of my favorite papers), but also Polar Pearl Metallic and Aurora Fine Art, both of which are fantastic papers. 

 

Photographing Wild

I’ll be honest, I just downloaded this eBook. I haven’t even read it yet. But I’ve been friends with David duChemin long enough to know that I trust him and when I hear him speak with such passion and conviction about a project as he has about Photographing Wild, the new Craft & Vision ebook by National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen, that’s all the endorsement I need.

From what I know about Paul Nicklen by looking at his photographs and watching his videos, his passion to both his craft and the subject matter that inspires it is equal to David’s. So if the two of them found a project worthy of both of their collective creative attention, I’m in. And if you’re interested in learning how to make better, more compelling photos, you should be in too.

Buy a copy of Photographing Wild (or any other C&V title) using the button below. It’s not an affiliate link, nor am I being paid to endorse the eBook. I just believe in the work and in what David is trying to do for photography and photographers with Craft & Vision.

I Love a (Small Town) Parade

I love parades. Always have. I think the first parades I remember are probably the ones down Main Street at Disneyland. My parents loved them too — so much so that they would often make them obligatory when ever we visited the Magic Kingdom, which was often. Of course that’s back when you could visit often, without needing to take out a second mortgage on your house to be able to afford it. Growing up in Southern California there weren’t a ton of parades, other than the Rose Parade of course, and the aforementioned trips to Disneyland. I went to the Rose Parade a couple times and hated it. Too many people and I remember it being hard to see anything. Much better coverage on Channel Five. Plus, there was Bob Eubanks and Stephane Edwards – SoCal parade icons by most people’s account. Today I went to the Labor Day Parade in Kensington, Maryland. It’s only the second parade I’ve been to since moving to the East Coast a year ago — the first was the Fourth of July parade in Takoma Park. Small town parades are terrific. Sure the floats aren’t as elaborate and the bands aren’t as big or polished — though one of the high school bands in Kensington was playing “Buddy Holly” by Weezer, which was pretty cool. Still, there’s a charm to small town parades that you don’t often see in the more lavish affairs. I got to shake the hands of a few local politicians and even overheard bits and pieces of conversations about who was or wasn’t doing their job. The sense of community is palpable and people — both spectators and participants — are just happy to be there. And isn’t that what parades should be all about?

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Elliott Erwitt's New York / Paris Box Set [Review]

NOTE: This review first appeared on Faded & Blurred.

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” — Elliott Erwitt

I could go on for pages about what I think of Elliott Erwitt’s body of work (spoiler: it’s brilliant). But this isn’t about his work — not directly. Rather, it’s about how two books present a portion of that work, made over a 50+ year period on the streets of two of the world’s most famous cities.

With Elliott Erwitt’s New York / Paris Box SetteNeues has created a (mostly) fantastic addition to your photographic library from one of the most iconic and celebrated photographers of the last century. The two-volume slipcased edition is filled with brilliant images by Erwitt (now 87) at his playful best, offering views of Paris and New York that would likely go unnoticed by other photographers. “Erwitt’s subject is the happy accident,” writes Adam Gopnik in New York. It’s worth noting that the only text you’ll find in each volume, other than the photo index at the back, are the brief yet compelling forewords written by Gopnik (a staff writer at The New Yorker) that help to provide context for the work and the cities in which the work was made. The photographs are a love letter to stolen moments — a five-decade walking tour through the streets of New York and Paris. Whereas a photographer like Eggleston sees the ordinary as banal, Erwitt finds amusement, choosing instead to let the viewer in on the joke. As Gopnik notes, Erwitt captures “not decisive moments but self-delighted moments.”

Overall, the design and layout of each volume is clean and effective. The paper is a terrific weight and the finish renders details beautifully. As mentioned previously, the only text in each volume is the brief foreword (translated into Spanish, French, Italian and German). Photographs are basically on a grid with plenty of full-page images. I love the way that themes are often grouped and repeated throughout — Erwitt’s fascination with dogs, for example — or the wonderful sequence capturing a young couple at the fountain in front of the Louvre, reminiscent of one of my favorite photobooks, the superb Magnum Contact Sheets. Despite the stunning the photography, I still cannot understand the unfortunate convention of printing images as double-page spreads, only to have the main subject or focus of the image become lost in the gutter. I mentioned this in my review of Marc Lagrange’s Senza Parole, also from teNeues. Perhaps nowhere in either volume is this more offensive than in Paris, where the cover image is printed double-page, leaving the otherwise stunning silhouette of the dancer caught mid-air obscured by what may as well be a chasm between the pages. While I love the near-tabloid size of the books, the resulting 14×22 size of a two-page spread is likely larger than the images would have originally been printed. Several of the otherwise remarkable photographs are presented this way; not only does it take the viewer out of the photograph, it obscures much of the context that is so key to understanding the deftness of Erwitt’s eye.

“Guttergate” aside, there is much to love about Elliott Erwitt’s New York / Paris Box Set. If you are already a fan of Elliott Erwitt, this box set will remind you why. If you’re not, his charming view of everyday life is likely to make you one. As Gopnik writes in the foreword for New York, “The city sneaks up on us in pictures, and we are startled to see what it looks like even when what it looks like is just us doing what we really do.” Gopnik reminds us that Erwitt delights in capturing “not significant moments but serendipitous moments.”

I would like to thank teNeues for supplying me with a copy of Elliott Erwitt’s New York / Paris Box Set to review. You can purchase a copy directly from the publisher or from Amazon. All images © Elliott Erwitt.

Senza Parole: Marc Lagrange [Review]

Sumptuous isn't a word you might typically associate with a photo book, but paging through Senza Parole, the unintentional swan song by the late Belgian photographer Marc Lagrange, you realize that even sumptuous may fail to adequately describe the lush beauty held within. Lagrange was a master of his craft and borrows from photographers like Helmut Newton, Peter Lindbergh and Paolo Roversi and from filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wai (2046 is a visual masterpiece) to create a world that is sensual and provocative, in a style that is all his own. I was introduced to the work of Mr. Lagrange in 2013 by a photographer friend who let me borrow his previous book, Diamonds & Pearls. I became an immediate fan and after returning the book, I wrote: "In photographs by Marc Lagrange, models become characters, performing both for the camera and for their own amusement, while we are invited to take the role of privileged voyeur, watching the acts of eroticism and intimacy unfold like a stage play." Senza Parole is both an evolution and a departure; Mr. Lagrange is building on much of the work that came before it, while at the same time pushing his own boundaries into an even more cinematic direction. Whereas locations in Diamonds & Pearls were often small and intimate—occasionally even simple textured backdrops—in Senza Parole, environments are presented as grand set pieces to help contextualize the lush narrative framing the work. The intimacy is still there, to be sure, but alongside it is a larger theatricality, partially derived from the set ups in the locations themselves—beautiful nudes alongside elephants and camels in the old stock exchange in Antwerp, Belgium or figure studies with massive marble statuary at Studio Nicoli in Pietra Santa, Italy. The results are spectacular—and while the images may skirt the line of propriety for some, fans of Mr. Lagrange will likely see it as an elegant erotic circus that is sensual without being overtly sexual.

Technically, the work in Senza Parole is superb, particularly the black and whites, where subtle toning adds a hint of patina that evokes a sense of timelessness. The color photographs, while for me not quite as consistent, are often rich and velvety without feeling overly styled—this is work crafted by a masterful eye, which makes his untimely passing all the more tragic. The layout is clean and elegant, save for the annoying and all-too-frequent convention of presenting landscape images as full-bleed, two-page spreads. Personally, I would prefer to see them printed full-bleed on one page and simply rotate the book 90 degrees, which seems to be a better solution than having the subject lost in the gutter. It only happens a couple times, but even that is enough to take the viewer out of the otherwise compelling visual narrative. There are two areas where the work itself falls slightly short for me. The first is an issue with the selection more than the technical nature of the photographs. There are a few images featuring men rather than women—within this body of work, which is so obviously focused on the female form, their inclusion feels somehow tacked on or obligatory. The other is in the few group shots—their compositional complexity feels almost haphazard and breaks the otherwise taut visual tension between subject and environment that Mr. Lagrange creates with only one or two main subjects. These are only minor quibbles, however, about an otherwise gorgeous collection of photographs.

While I've never been much of a fan of nude photography as a genre, especially when nudity is used simply to titillate as in contemporary "glamour" photography, the work of Marc Lagrange—and particularly the photographs in Senza Parole—transcend the unfortunate moniker to become, in his own words, “…an elaborate dress code of seduction.”

I would like to thank teNeues for supplying a copy of Senza Parole for me to review. You can purchase a copy directly from the publisher or from Amazon. All images © Marc Lagrange.

Additional Links

Marc LagrangeSenza Parole: Behind the scenes Diamonds & Pearls

© Marc Lagrange
© Marc Lagrange
© Marc Lagrange
© Marc Lagrange
© Marc Lagrange
© Marc Lagrange
© Marc Lagrange
© Marc Lagrange
© Marc Lagrange
© Marc Lagrange

Exactly Where I Need To Be

"Hang on tightly, let go lightly." It's what Clive Owen's character Jack said to himself as he sold the car his father bought for him in the film Croupier. It's also what I said to myself as I stood in my empty apartment in Rancho Cucamonga, California for the last time before making the 2740 mile drive across the country to Washington, DC. In the weeks leading up to the actual move — something I have come to refer to as The Culling — I taped out a rectangle on the living room floor that was the same size as the cargo area of my car. Other than several boxes of books that were shipped, anything that didn't fit was either sold or simply given away. The home that I had known for nearly fifteen years had become stagnant and unfamiliar to me. In the five years leading up to The Culling, I had lost both of my parents, shut down a website that I had been working on almost daily since 2009 and saw the end of a long-term relationship. At the same time, potential opportunities on the East Coast began to present themselves — first one, then another, then still another. "Leap, fucker," the little voice in my head would whisper. Over several months, the whispers grew louder, until the way forward was clear. As excited as I was to see the Washington Monument and the low-slung DC skyline after five days on the road, I couldn't help but be reminded of another great line from Fight Club that goes: “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” Now, I don't for a moment want to compare my situation to anyone else's and claim that my transient sense of loss is in any way the same as, say, someone losing their house in a fire or a parent losing a child. But it is loss nonetheless and we are all simply trying to do the best we can with the tools we have. For myself, I had come to feel like a 48 year-old orphan, without a home and without a direction — on the world, rather than in it. I have always been somewhat prone to periods of existential crisis, but in this season of my life it felt different. More weighty, if you will. Youthful dreams of success and notoriety left me long ago. What I want now is significance — to simply feel like I matter, like I belong somewhere.

Over the past few months, I've started to get to know My Town — a town of museums and restaurants, little markets and cafes, streets to shoot and stories to share. I've made some terrific new friends and deepened my relationships with others who, while distant geographically, have become every bit as important as those close by. As I look towards the new year, I'm overcome with appreciation and gratitude that I am exactly where I need to be, which might be the most powerful realization of my life. Focusing my creative energy outward, rather than inward, allows me to take myself out of the equation in a way. By removing the need to be at the center of everything, I'm able to celebrate people who I find interesting or inspiring and in that, I feel a joy that inspires my own work, whether I'm writing or painting or making photographs. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I am both hopeful and optimistic about the coming year and I can't wait to start sharing it with you.

Berlin Mirimalism: Miri Berlin

One of the more fantastic — and frankly, unexpected — byproducts of celebrating the people whose work I find interesting or inspiring is that occasionally, I am asked to collaborate in some way on a particular project. The most recent example was with Miri Berlin, a photographer whose gorgeous, minimalist cityscapes first caught my eye in 2014 for a post on Faded & Blurred. I fell in love with her use of color and negative space to capture seldom-seen sides of places like Israel, Japan, Portugal and her native Berlin. Over the next several months, we exchanged a few messages and in the summer of 2015, Miri emailed to tell me about a book project she was working on called Berlin Mirimalism and to ask for feedback on her selection of images. I told her how much I loved the images and that I thought they would make a terrific book, after which she asked if I would be willing to write the foreword. I was honored by the request and told her of course I would love to be involved. The English version of the foreword is below; a German translation is also included in the book.

Foreword

For those of us who grew up in America during the end of the Cold War, our perception of Berlin was largely shaped by the media's portrayal of it. While Russia became the Evil Empire, Berlin was still seen as part of a culture of lingering oppression, a prisoner of its own propaganda, living in the shadows of WWII. In the media, Berlin was often presented as a heavy, hopeless place. Grey. Sullen. Even after the Wall — a literal symbol of that oppression — came down in 1989, many let the fears of the past shape their perceptions of the present.

Through the lens of photographer Miriam Pelzman, aka Miri Berlin — in a style dubbed "Mirimalism" — the city eschews the drab demeanor of passé perceptions, and bounds from the shadows into the light. In fact, few shadows appear in the work at all, replaced instead by acute architectural angles and sweeping shapes of color suspended against expanses of vivid blue sky. The crafted compositions often border on the austere — where a piece of a lamppost, the top of a tent, or a fragment of a building helps create a beautifully subtle visual tension. The sea of negative space invites the viewer to think about what lies beyond the frame, rather than merely within it. There are few details to reveal location, giving the photographs an Everywhere quality and for a few moments, we are untethered explorers, floating from scene to scene looking for landmarks to call home.

With Berlin Mirimalism, Miri Berlin has crafted a body of work that presents a collection of spaces that are elegant in their simplicity; the compositions are purposeful without being aggressive. She is not simply showing us a Berlin, and certainly not the Berlin of decades past. This is her Berlin — vibrant and compelling, bold and modern, hopeful and full of possibility.

© Miri Berlin
© Miri Berlin
© Miri Berlin
© Miri Berlin

I can't thank Miri enough for inviting me to play a small part in such a wonderful project.

Miri is offering two versions of Berlin Mirimalism: a 7.5x7.5 in (19x19 cm) softcover and a limited edition 11x11 in (28x28 cm) hardcover (only 25 available), which also includes a signed and numbered print of one of Miri's favorite images from the book. BUY THE BOOK HERE

It's Gonna Be Okay

One of the first memories I have of my dad is the sound of his voice telling me "It's okay. It's gonna be okay." I was sitting in the back of his 1970 Toyota Land Cruiser, which was beginning to fill up with water. We had gone off-roading and were attempting to cross a stream in a spot where there was an unexpected drop off and we were now stuck. I remember the icy water was over the tops of my shoes and, despite his reassurance to the contrary, everything was definitely not okay. Fortunately, we were out with his best friend Bob, who, after what seemed like an eternity to the four year-old me, was able to pull us out with the winch on the front of his truck. My dad's illness was both a blessing and a curse. Yes, it's what ultimately took his life, but it also allowed the two of us to find each other amidst the collateral damage of a lifetime of never quite seeing eye to eye. When he got sick, the things between us that once seemed so important and at times even kept us from speaking became insignificant and ceased to matter. In the end, we found the common ground that had eluded us for far too long. We learned to respect each other not only as father and son, but as men. I no longer had to cast him as the villain to fuel my anger, itself simply a byproduct of the hurt of feeling abandoned after he and my mom divorced. He accepted the fact that even though I was of him I wasn't him, and while he always wanted the best for me, he had to let me learn from my own mistakes instead of trying to be the solution to his. A couple days before he died, we were sitting on the front porch just after sunrise, which had become a welcome routine. We seldom said anything, instead we just drank our coffee, enjoying occupying the same space. "I love you dad," I said. He was silent for a few minutes, then he put his hand on my leg and squeezed gently. "I love you too son," he replied, "more than you'll ever know." He stared out over the desert and I could see his eyes begin to well up with tears.

The last memory I have of my dad is the echo of his words from more than four decades earlier. I woke up early on the morning of November 4th and just sat bedside him, talking to him, unsure of whether or not he could hear or understand me. "It's okay, dad," I said as I held his hand and stroked his forehead. "It's gonna be okay." He had fought so hard for so long—nearly a decade longer than the statistics and his doctors predicted. I studied his face, now sullen and drawn, and his hands, once so strong and capable, and I just watched as his breathing gently slowed and eventually stopped.

I can't believe that it's been two years already. Not a day goes by that I don't wish I had more time with my parents, but I carry them with me and maybe that's enough.