I participated in a workshop last fall by this name, situated in my home town of Santa Fe. The idea was to shoot Santa Fe, mostly at night, and also try to shoot in the noir spirit exemplified by some of the film classics of bygone years.
I wasn’t very happy with the results I got, although this one, The Palace Noir, seemed reasonably noirish and also consistent with my usual style. People who know Santa Fe will recognize the centuries-old Governor’s Palace, to the left in the picture, and it’s always pretty noir. I lay in wait for the guy slouching along with his bicycle. I wondered at the time, as you might be wondering, what someone was doing with a bike, so late on a cold night. The juror for this year’s National Prize Show at the Cambridge Art Association liked it, so for a limited time, it is viewable online or in an actual gallery, for brave gallery goers in the Boston area. https://cambridge-art-association.myshopify.com/collections/2020-national-prize-show
Despite my disappointing results from the workshop, I was intrigued by the idea of shooting this city at night. In October, when the workshop took place, it was getting unpleasantly cold late at night. Starting this spring, when the weather got milder, I started into the idea again, not so much for anything “noir” but because I just thought Santa Fe would look good at night. Then, when Covid-19 struck, I thought it would be all the more interesting, devoid of people even at usually busy night hours.
Twice, I have gone into the Plaza area to shoot at night, expecting to be harassed by cops wanting to know why I, alone, was wandering around during an official state of emergency. Both times, I have found the Plaza full of young people who have driven their cars into the center of the city and are out of them yukking it up on the sidewalks. The police seem to be ignoring all of them. At least I went in solo and kept to myself! Anyway, the photographic output of those ventures has been nil.
I got the news yesterday that, for the second year in a row, a picture from this series was juried into the National Prize Show of the Cambridge Art Association. I’m especially pleased because it’s nice to reconnect with that community again even though, as was true last year, I’m an out of stater. The National Prize show is not limited to artists in the Boston–Cambridge area, so I can still participate at times even though I now live in New Mexico.
This year’s picture is The Very Large Array.
The Very Large Array, or as it’s known around here, the VLA, is a radio telescope installation in western New Mexico. For those wondering, “very large array of what?” it is a a set of radio telescope antennas laid out on a Y shaped set of tracks:
Radio telescopes like the VLA work on a principle that is not hard to explain if you are used to thinking about lenses. I used to know the math to prove it all, but that was back in school 40+ years ago. The array of telescopes on their tracks forms a giant lens. The lens has the same resolution as a solid lens or mirror with the same huge diameter as the Y-shaped array; resolution is a function of diameter. So, its ability to focus on fine detail is the same as that imaginary giant lens. It does not have the same light-gathering ability as the huge lens, because there’s just the set of light-gathering spots—the individual antennas—not a solid surface gathering photons. Fewer photons per unit time. However, since you can take your time gathering photons for most celestial objects, the VLA can be used to observe and record a wide range of things in space, from black holes to radio galaxies. (There is also an even more titanic Very Long Baseline Array, with antennas like these placed on a line with the Virgin Islands at one end and Hawaii at the other end.)
Not only is the array huge, but so are the individual antennas. You approach the array and see it from a long way off, as in the picture above. The arms of the Y are each 13 miles long, so the antennas can be spread out that far, and you see them from a long way off.
When you get close to one, you appreciate how large a 25-meter telescope is. Everyone stands and gapes at it—the one that is sitting at the visitor’s area of the control facility. For me, it usually is about the people. The knot of tourists at the lower left of the above picture looked like my kind of thing, with the adults all transfixed by what they’re seeing and the little boy not paying attention. He puts me in mind of my time as a public school teacher. You have to get kids interested in stuff. They find their own things to focus on, but those are not always what adults want or would predict.
So, there I had the clear light, all over the place. There were all those antennas getting it, and I was getting some in a different but still unusual range of wavelengths, with an infrared digital camera. I moved over to the other side of the group. Close—you want to be close. As with other pictures in this series, this black-and-white rendition has even more contrast than you would expect for something taken in a sunny desert. Shadows, for example, are very black: the sky does not fill in shadows with infrared light, and for the same reason, the sky itself is fairly black because air molecules don’t scatter infrared rays as they do visible, blue rays.
However, the picture is still about the kid. Sometimes the infrared makes things clearer. My friend Ed Friedman was always challenging me to shoot things that were “not just about the infrared,” which I strive to do.
For those who are into gear
You can’t buy ready-made infrared cameras. In the film days, you used special infrared film, which was not a pleasant substance to work with. It was ultra-slow, usually very grainy, and more finicky to develop than regular film. Of the film experiences I miss, IR is not one of them. I have a couple of series of infrared film pictures, some of which I think are wonderful, but all of which are technically terrible.
These days, you get an infrared camera by having someone convert a regular camera to IR. It is a task for a skilled technician, but it’s straightforward. Digital sensors are naturally sensitive to IR as well as to visible wavelengths, and they have a clear glass filter cover, to filter out the infrared light that would mess up your normal color photograph. Without the cover, your color photos would have some strange properties, like artificial black fabrics, which fluoresce a bit in the infrared, coming out looking purplish.
The technician removes that clear glass, and immediately you have a camera that can record all wavelengths including the infrared! Then, one way or another, you filter out the visible light, or some colors of visible light, and there you have it. Qualitatively, the infrared camera and its lenses are as good as they were before you did the conversion—fantastically better than in the bad old days of grainy infrared film. The infrared digital camera is as “fast” (light sensitive) as the original unconverted machine.
This is a really excellent thing to do with a slightly out of date digital camera body, after you buy a better body and for which you have a number of good lenses. This particular body is a Panasonic DMC-G3, for which I have an assortment of high-quality Leica and Panasonic lenses. (The Very Large Array was shot with the superb Panasonic 12–35 mm f/2.8 zoom, at 20mm.) After I upgraded from this old body to a new one, I had the G3 converted to infrared by LifePixel. Mine has the 590nm visible-light filter that LifePixel calls “supercolor”: the camera actually gives you a bizarre color picture, although I have so far always wanted to render mine as black and white.
I previously used a second infrared camera, a Ricoh GXR 24–72mm zoom module. It was not converted by LifePixel but by some sainted and anonymous Japanese person who evidently acquired a bunch of those lens units (maybe factory rejects, because mine has no serial number), converted them to IR, and sold them for dirt cheap on eBay, complete with an assortment of different visible light filters. The Ricoh, which produces a surprisingly high quality image considering its point-and-shoot-sized sensor, is what I used the National Prize picture, The Muster.
Several photographers asked me, after seeing The Muster, where they could get one of those infrared GXRs. I would say, if you don’t already have one, you can’t have one or you shouldn’t. LifePixel would probably do it for you for a price, but I don’t see why you would do that when you could have them make your leftover Nikon or Canon DSLR into an infrared camera that used all those fantastic lenses. Well actually, I do, because the Ricoh is a very compact system that I had with me almost all the time, which is how The Muster happened. So think about having LifePixel make you something out of a high-quality P&S, maybe. That is basically what my Ricoh module was, in terms of sensor size and quality. These days I use a converted Panasonic GX85, for which some nice compact lenses are available.
I was pleased to learn this week that a recent picture, The Muster, was juried into the upcoming National Prize Show at the Cambridge Art Association and was awarded the first prize for photography. The show is May 19 through June 23.
The picture is part of a new project I have been working on, “The Clear Light.” Although I want to avoid the gimmicky look often associated with infrared photography, I also want to exploit the unusual clarity of pictures taken by infrared radiation. Infrared has some special virtues besides clarity, actually, one of which is being able to take pictures at high noon and in other light that might be flat looking, with light and dark contrasts that give the immediate feeling of shadows and depth.
The picture was taken on a partly cloudy day in a shady location.
I was pleased to learn, just now, that my picture The Insect Barn was juried into this year’s Members’ Prize Show at the CAA.
I had mentioned in a previous post that i consider this picture one of the most representative of my style. So, when I like something it’s always nice that a juror or critic likes it, too.
I remember that day very clearly, six years ago. As usual, these days, many people were hassling me for taking their photographs even though the Los Angeles County Fair is an extremely public place. Street photography really is not what it used to be. These people, though, were oblivious of me even though I was pretty close to them. That’s the way I like it. If a single one of them had noticed me or made eye contact with the lens, it would not be the kind of street photograph I look for.
I love every gesture: the beer can, the headache, the neck, the hip check, and the open arms saying “c’mon you guys, let’s go get some deep-fried Twinkies.” The attraction, by the way, was to go into the tent, where they would let a giant centipede or tarantula crawl around on your arm.
The CAA has had more shows than usual in the first half of the year, which is nice. I’ve gotten to show things in several already. The latest, which I found out about just now, is the show “Re-Cycle,” juried by Susan Nielsen, farm project space + gallery.
My picture in this show is titled Adults Only:
I’m more interested in gesture than in other elements of art, and usually for me that means “found people”—unposed human figures—and not “found objects.” This one was irresistible, though. The weird humor of this sign fragment, floating in the Mystic River, went along somehow with the swirling, oily water. The water is not for the innocent or faint of heart, nor, I suppose, is the place where it’s going. When I heard “re-cycle,” my mind turned to images of trash, waste, and things that look like waste. It usually has a good connotation these days, about a greener Earth and turning even garbage into light, but what we have here is the dark side: things heading back down to what Phillip K. Dick called the Tomb World.
As with The Fair, this picture was shot on Kodak E100G film, with a Leica M6TTL camera and 35mm Summicron ASPH lens. The film was my standard for a while. Now it’s gone for good. Its images had a lot of the qualities of really good digital images but with somewhat better highlight control, I thought. Anyway, it’s mostly digital for me going forward.
I was very pleased today to learn that my photograph The Fair was juried into the “National Prize” show, and it will be in the CAA’s exhibit in Cambridge from May 15 through July 11 this year. The show was juried by Toby Kamps, Menil Collection.
In the first place, I just like the way the picture looks. It was shot on the beautiful, now defunct Kodak E100G film; the colors, although they are very rich, are 100% natural. Colors do look rich at the state fair.
Gestures are of great importance to me, and I love the juxtaposition of the little toddler, who has a look of innocent excitement on his face, with the two big boys, who are either looking oafish or snarling.
I was very close to the big boy on the right. He completely ignored me, and the 35mm lens I was using captured a lot of detail in a lot of depth. I moved around slightly and waited for the dragon roller coaster to be in the right spot.
That much, I saw in the viewfinder. Later, I was intrigued by a kind of coincidence of perspective. The human figures that appear to be smaller due to perspective—that is, smaller because they are farther from the lens—also are smaller in real life. That was a bonus which I believe contributes to the picture’s feeling of depth.
The year started out nicely, with a photograph from 2006, The Beach, accepted for a show at the Cambridge Art Association. The show ran from January 19 to February 23 this year. The theme was “Secrets.”
I looked through my portfolio, at recent things and things going back a few years, for examples that are in my current style but exemplify this theme in some way. In this case, there are not only the obscured faces of the men in the foreground, but there’s the anomaly of the important man in the red shirt. For me, his dynamic, bent-over gesture next to the straight-up man in the hoodie is what it’s all about. As for secrets, why does he look like he’s struggling into a 50-mph wind? The foreground man (like everyone else) is standing there like the Colossus of Rhodes. It was not a windy day, actually.
My other entry was The Vendor, taken in Santa Fé in 2006. Another anomalous figure: at first you tell yourself that’s her shadow interestingly silhouetted on the parasol. No, can’t be, because the light is coming from the left. It happens to be someone else’s shadow–someone off camera–who just happened to be in exactly the right spot. I wish The Beach were as high-quality a print as this, although I think in this case that the juror picked the stronger image. The Vendor was shot on the now-nonexistent E100G 35mm transparency film, which had very realistic colors, almost no grain, and very high sharpness. I was using a Leica 135mm f/2.8 lens on a Leica M6TTL; it isn’t even one of the better or more modern Leica lenses, but combined with that film, it made a picture that is very, very sharp. In the print, you can see small details in that jewelry and very little grain.
As I have gotten more comfortable with photography, there are more times when I know, at the moment, that I’ve got something good. I see it in the viewfinder; most of these pictures do not need any cropping. I see the elements that I like coming together and “know” that the print on the wall will be at least as impressive as what I’m looking at. As we shall see, this does not necessarily mean other people will like the picture, especially customers and critics. As far as what people buy is concerned, so far I’m about two for three; a third of what people buy consists of pictures that I think could have been taken by someone else. I concede that that someone else may take better pictures than mine! This post is simply about what I like, and the extent to which I can achieve it.
First example: The Fair.
I was at a Maine Photographic workshop called “The Magic Moment,” taught by Constantine Manos. Costa had sent us out this day with instructions to “get close to people” and “I want to see heads, big heads!” I was just a couple of feet in front of the guy on the right. I had a 35mm lens mounted. This lens recurs a lot in my best pictures, because I’m close. If necessary, as it was with The Evening, I can always straighten the perspective lines in Lightroom.
When I saw these people in the viewfinder, I thought “mission accomplished.” It is still one of my favorite two or three of my own pictures. Some other photographers like it. It has not done so well with customers and critics. The customers I can understand. To the extent that it’s just a picture of a bad-looking kid with a snarl on his face (the kind of gesture that I’m always after), who wants it in his living room? There is always the unexpected objection, too. Once, the person in charge of hanging a show of mine wondered if it would be acceptable to her clientele. Can you guess why she was concerned? If you are of a certain age and disposition, you have already noticed the cigarette behind the other young guy’s ear. That was the problem.
On the other hand, here is a picture taken on Christmas Eve Day, when I was having lunch with my wife. She reached out to stir her coffee, and I said “wait, wait! don’t move!” There was her hand’s reflection in the window, the gesture of the spoon toward the cup, the human forms in the background, and the sun blasting through the window and into the objects on the counter.
This one, also, I felt was a good photograph from the moment I saw it. It did get recognition, at least from critics. The first juried Cambridge Art Association show I entered, in 2008, was called “Interiors/Exteriors,” juried by James Hull. I thought, “ha! I have just the thing.” I was not too surprised to get into the show, but quite surprised to be a Juror’s Choice. I don’t care that so far, nobody has bought this picture. The whole experience gave me more confidence in what I was doing.
May 1, 2013: Johnny’s also will be showing at Danforth Art in Framingham this summer, and The Fair will be showing at the National Prize Show of the Cambridge Art Association.
The Cambridge Art Association has shows named “Red” and “Blue” in alternate years. This year is a Blue year. The show’s subtitle is “more than a color, metaphor, feeling, idea, or hue.” More, yes, although each of us has at least one or two of those things in mind.
For me, the Red and Blue shows are like workshop assignments. I have the two years in between Red shows to shoot that theme. Sometimes I am doing that consciously. This year I was thinking “blue” a lot when I went out, although not really on June 24, 2012, when I shot The Evening, which won First Prize in this year’s show.
I was out that day with my friend Ed Friedman and some of his photography students. We ended up in the Gloucester harbor area and were still walking around at 8 p.m. It was an evening when the light was beautiful and everything suddenly looked good. The town’s Festival of St. Peter, patron saint of fishermen, was a few days away. My usual style would have been to sneak around the corner and get the couple walking their dog, with at least some of these other elements in the picture, but as much as we talk about it, we can’t always be in the right spot at the right moment with the right lens, can we? Next time.
When it was time to submit works for the Blue juror (this year it was Joseph Thompson of Mass MoCA), I submitted three: this one, one other from the same Gloucester evening (Non-Hazardous Industrial Wastewateri) and The Insect Barn, from an outing with my wife and daughter at the Los Angeles County Fair.
“The Evening.” Gloucester, Massachusetts, June 2012.
“Non-Hazardous Industrial Wastewater.” Gloucester, June 2012.
My thought at the time was that The Insect Barn was by far the most representative of my style, but I had a feeling the juror wouldn’t go for it. The Wastewater picture was even further off my style, but I was allowed to submit three pictures, so….
The Insect Barn is a good example of what I like to call “my style.” There are many characteristic gestures in the picture. I’m right in front of the people, but they don’t notice me. I didn’t create the “insect barn” sign but don’t mind taking advantage of it. Everybody is totally worn out (except maybe the boy) from having such a wonderful time at the County Fair. I’ll bet the mother can hardly wait till next year.