Archive for August, 2009


Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Rhonda (BW Conversion)

A while back I picked up a 180mm f/4.5 for my RB67, on the grounds that it was dirt-cheap (one of the old single-coated versions, nothing even remotely fancy) and it was silly to have an RB67 and not have a proper portrait lens, since it’s such a wonderful camera for that application.

This is a photograph of Rhonda, a friend who’s a favorite portrait subject of mine, because she’s simply so fantastically interesting, and because that comes through so very well in photographs.

I don’t like pictures with new cars in them

Monday, August 17th, 2009

“I don’t like pictures with new cars in them”

Or something similar was said by a student showing his work in a class critique in my first semester of photography at the University of Nebraska. This was back in 2002. I can’t recall his exact words but I remember that this was the spark of an interesting exchange between students in the room- we had predominantly been seeing slides of work by Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Eggleston, Friedlander, Winogrand etc etc and none of the pictures by those photographers ever had a Toyoya Prius in them. The design of the late model vehicles on the streets of Lincoln was for that student an obstacle to work around. He didn’t want a current model vehicle in his pictures so if I remember correctly, he went out of his way to photograph older cars. (for you Lincolnites and Nebraskans: He headed out to West O street) This made his pictures look “better” in that they resembled more what he had been seeing in class. There’s a lot more which could be said about all this, but what I’m interested in is how visual triggers prompt one to photograph. What is it that when in the viewfinder one wants to release the shutter? For the student it was a 1964 Galaxie instead of a 2004 Camry. How does one’s photographic influences manifest themselves in the Real World? This isn’t (shouldn’t be) about copying a style. Even Olympus will help you be Moriyama now with the push of a button. That part is brainlessly easy.

I find this eerily familiar. I hate having modern cars in my photographs as well…I think perhaps because most modern cars seemed to be designed so much with inoffensive neutrality in mind; they don’t seem to mean anything.

Then again, what the hell do I know about cars? I’ve certainly never driven one…

via _valerian » Photographing the Past

Conscientious on Supanit Riansrivilai in Poland

Monday, August 10th, 2009

I’m aware of the Black Snapper site, but so far haven’t noticed too much there that’s really grabbed my attention — may be my fault for not looking closely enough.

However, Joerg Colberg points to a an interesting “kerfuffle” about one of the sequences published there. The kerfuffle is around the question of whether the photographer (who is from Thailand) was misled by preconceptions about the country (Poland) where the photographs were made, and how that relates to the validity of the photographs.

In reaction, Kolouker elaborates: “Dear Mr. Kloos,

I happen to disagree with your view above. I find Supanit’s experience biased by her assumptions about the country of Poland. In her introduction to the photo essay she says that ‘memories of the struggles suffered through are still visible in the faces of the country.’

She exploits the common misconception and stereotype of Poland as a depressed post communist country where war wounds are still present. I am happy she did not mention Auschwitz.

Being a person with a completely different cultural background (I did take that into account) and with little knowledge in the subject, she fell victim to the stereotype. She ’saw’ what she expected to see, and overlooked everything that did not fit in her assumed image of Poland.

This is of course a familiar type of debate, although typically it arises when first-world photographers visit third-world destinations and produce images of helpless poverty or exoticism. But the principle is not substantially different. (Although certainly the stakes are.)

Colberg’s take is this:

Instead, the main issue seems to be that there simply is no realistic versus an unrealistic or a true versus a false depiction of Central Europe or any other place. A photographer will see things based on his or her background, and while we can disagree with it and claim that “no, that’s not a good depiction of this place”, it still doesn’t automatically mean that that photographer’s view is less valid than ours (the lack of smiling children or whatever else notwithstanding).

Which is perfectly valid, of course. Certainly there is no objective standard by which we can measure authenticity. And truthfulness in photography is and always has been essentially mythical in nature.

However, I do think that there is a fundamental shallow-ness that comes from experiencing a place as a traveler or visitor, which I think often drastically limits how much the traveler can really tell us. Of course, this applies just as much to the photography of, say, Robert Frank as to that of Riansrivilai. (Other than, I suppose, that Frank’s attack on America’s myths of itself was somewhat unexpected, whereas Riansrivilai is accused of regurgitating familiar myths. I honestly don’t really know enough about Poland to have any idea whether this is true.)

(Also, I do think Frank’s American photography is weakened by the same token.)


Should I also add that I didn’t find the photography in question very interesting? I don’t this is a question of the sociological or historical implications of the photographs; I just don’t like them very much. I don’t think it is horribly relevant to the authenticity problem, although I wonder whether those who attack Riansrivilai’s perception of Poland might like it better if it was better articulated….

Also, should I add that I certainly don’t think I have ever succeeded in telling the truth about any place or people, whether it was one I have known all my life or one I have only just met? Then again, I’ve never presumed to do so, so perhaps it is not at issue.

Every Separation

Saturday, August 8th, 2009
Every Separation

Every Separation

I added a new project page on the site with some of my recent street photography. The project is organized around a quotation from Simone Weil — “Every separation is a link.”

Snap Judgment: The Photobook on Eugene Richards’s The Blue Room.

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

The photographs included in this review remind me in principle on the old Buddhist practice of meditating on dead bodies…This passage describes the effect well:

Richard’s photographs contain empty structures, and these structures appear to be mere shells. What is left standing has the the paint peeling off and the doors remain open as there is no real reason to close them anymore. The wood floor boards have become so rotten that they are collapsing under their own weight. The wall paper is yellowing, if there at all. Sometimes even the wall boards are gone, revealing the stucture’s skeletal timbers, like flesh that has come off the bone. There are decaying carpets and stair cases leading to nowhere.

Eugene Richards – The Blue Room « The PhotoBook

Perception and viewfinders

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

I’m not big on bemoaning progress and eulogizing the good old days. However, I am coming to realize that there is at least one area where we photographers who started out in the digital era are at a distinct disadvantage: viewfinders.

I’m not talking about how film SLRs may (or may not) have bigger and brighter viewfinders than their digital cousins. I’m talking about diversity of viewing and focusing methods.

It is quite likely that photographers who start out with digital cameras and do not subsequently get into film cameras will only ever use two methods for framing and focusing: live view and SLR viewfinders. And it’s entirely likely that — unless they’re wealthy and can afford exotic systems or they do turn to film at some point — they won’t ever use a rangefinder camera, or a view camera, or even an SLR or TLR with a waist-level finder.

This may seem trivial. After all, it’s the final product that counts, not the process. No one would deny that it is possible to make very fine photographs with modern DLSRs, and it’s not as though the viewfinder appears in the print. As long as your photograph is framed the way you want it and focused on what you want it focused on, why should you care what you were looking through when you did the framing and the focusing?

Well, for any given photograph, you probably shouldn’t care. But at the same time, it’s a shame that generations of photographers are quite possibly going to be going their whole photographic lives without experiencing some of the alternatives.

Dorothea Lange said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” This is true, and what is more, not every camera teaches the same lessons on how to see. This is something I have come to realize more and more as I shoot with a combination of small-format SLR, medium-format SLR with WLF, rangefinders, and — although my experience with them so far has been very brief — view cameras.

Small-format SLRs

With a small-format SLR, you are almost certainly seeing

  • Through the lens
  • A vertically and horizontally unreversed image (i.e., right is right, left is left, up is up, and down is down)
  • An image which fills the viewfinder, but which is probably not precisely the same as the image which will be recorded on the film or sensor (i.e., most SLRs don’t have 100% viewfinder coverage, although some do)
  • Nothing which will not be recorded on the film or sensor
  • An image which is focused at the point the lens is focused, and which displays the DOF of the lens at its widest aperture

(Note: To be more specific, I should say a small-format SLR with a prism finder, but very few small-format SLRs feature other finder types, and they’re even more seldom used.)

There are lots of advantages to working with this kind of camera. Some types of photography are nearly impossible without them, in fact.

But there is also a sort of deceptive pseudo-realism to viewing the world through an SLR. The way the image fills the viewfinder, zooms with the lens, and displays the shallowest possible depth of field tends to decontextualize the subject as we see it while photographing.


The result — at least for me — is that while photographing with a small-format SLR, my eye was taught to look for detail, for the specific, for distant or small objects or patterns or entities, which can be pulled out of their surroundings and brought into view and into focus.

Surf and Turf (September 2007)

The learning process is twofold:

  1. Because I become habituated to seeing subjects in the decontextualized way the viewfinder presents them, I come to want and expect photographs which resemble or live up to the promise of the viewfinder image.
  2. I learn that the better I am at spotting fine details which are well-suited to this type of treatment, the better I am at making the photographs I am coming to want and expect. I am rewarded for developing an everyday seeing which skews away from seeing forests and toward seeing trees.

There is nothing wrong with this sort of photography, and most of my best photographs are — to greater or lesser extent — of this kind. But it was not until I started shooting with other types of cameras that I realized how much I was skewing more and more toward just those lenses and perspectives and subjects which worked in this way — and how much my eye was being trained to spot subjects which could be gainfully approached with those tools, and to disregard subjects which would be better approached by other means.


Because I had been shooting for some time with small-format SLRs, and because I had come to rely more and more on long and/or close-focusing lenses, I had a rather steep learning curve when I first picked up a rangefinder camera — much steeper than I would have if I had picked up a rangefinder as a total novice.

Koni-Omega Rangefinder

There are many differences between SLRs and rangefinders, and each has many strengths and weaknesses. For a good general enumeration, see Karen Nakamura’s site.

But in terms of the current discussion, what is essential is that the view through a rangefinder is:

  • Not through the lens
  • Often composed using framelines (i.e., the viewfinder image is larger than the area which will be photographed)
  • Unaffected by the maximum or working aperture of the lens
  • Not focused with the lens (i.e., everything appears in focus when the eye focuses on it; focusing is generally done only with split image patch in the center)
  • Totally unsuitable for close-up work or work with long lenses

The last point is the primary source of my initial frustration when working with rangefinder cameras, but it is also the primary source of my joy in using them now.

The type of photography which SLRs trained my eye for is the type for which rangefinders are practically useless, or at least very greatly hampered. With my rangefinder cameras, it is generally not possible to get close enough (or to use lenses long enough) to cherrypick details in the way I learned to want when shooting with my D40 and Nikkormat and my 55mm f/3.5 Micro or my 180mm f/2.8.

This is not a bad thing, although it led me on occasion to question the usefulness of my Olympus XA when I was first getting used to it. What this meant, at least in terms of the conditioning of my eye, was that I was suddenly forced to exclude the kind of detail subject which is well-suited to being taken out of context, and instead to shift my attention to subjects and/or scenes which

  1. Depend upon context for their meaning and integrate context extensively into the final photograph, and/or
  2. Are human-scale in size. (I.e., cover the space which might be occupied by one or many human beings)

In other words, rangefinders practically demand human subjects. This is one of the reasons why they are so often associated with street photography, documentary photography, and photojournalism. They are essentially optimized for that sort of work, and are really not very well-suited to most other types of photography.

Wait (View Large)

Of course, an SLR can also be used for subjects at that scale — although it is arguably much easier to frame a street scene when using a rangefinder with framelines than when using an SLR, and in some situations, rangefinder focusing may be faster and/or more definite.

But, for me, a substantial part of the advantage of using rangefinders is just that they suck so hard when it comes to cherrypicking details, and I am thus forced to consider context, to see context, to use context, if I want to make good photographs — not to mention being forced to seek out human subjects when it is often so easy for me to get drawn into the somewhat solipsistic world of still life and wildlife photography.

Yes? (View Large)

Waist level finders

With many (although certainly not all) medium format SLRs, waist level finders are as common as prism finders, or more common. With TLRs, WLF’s are certainly the standard.

Mmmm. RB67. Viewfinder=Huge

The view through a waist level finder is mostly the same as through prism finders as discussed above with small-format SLRs. However, with a WLF, the view is

  • Vertically unreversed but horizontally reversed
  • Often from a lower perspective (i.e., from waist level or a bit higher)

As a result, these cameras tend to have much the same impact on how I see as small-format SLRs do, except that they lose a bit of the pseudo-realism which is associated with the fully unreversed image, and they reward the ability to previsualize and compose a photograph which takes advantage of ease with which WLF cameras can be moved below the eye level.

This can make a surprisingly profound difference. We are accustomed to looking down on the world around us from atop our spindly little bodies; we live our whole lives seeing the world at eye-height, and the eye-height perspective carries with it a lot of the assumptions that are built into our mundane perception of the world.

Smoker's Altar

Of course, you can position any camera at any height, but WLF cameras make it substantially easier and more convenient to lower the perspective, and — for better or worse — what is convenient in practice is far more likely to change my habits than what requires awkward body positioning or extra gear.

The effect of the reversed image is more subtle; as I become accustomed to viewing the world with its axes flipped, my perception off objects is every so slightly more detached from my mundane way of seeing them; as a result, I am every so slightly more likely to see abstract qualities of form which are not necessarily dependent on how an object is oriented and positioned in real space.

This effect is much stronger with view cameras, which are reversed on both axes rather than just one, and there are other and much stronger differences in how one sees through a view camera. However, since I’ve only worked with them briefly in a group setting, I think I’ll leave them be for now; I may revise this or make a new post once I’ve had more time under their influence…


By the way, a lot of what I said here may make a great deal less sense when applied to landscape photography and work with ultra-wide lenses. I’m okay with that.