Big Alberta Sky

You’ll notice that rather than a photograph next to the lead-in paragraph I’ve embedded a YouTube link to an Ian Tyson song “Land of Shining Mountains”. I’ve been listening to that old cowpoke quite a bit and there is lot in his body of work that resonates with me having spent some formative years in Kamloops which, at the time, was a rail junction for both the CNR and CPR as well as a cowtown. The fancy hotel was called “The Stockman’s” featuring dinner and floor show Friday and Saturday nights for the well-heeled. It had its stockyards, its cowboy hotels and saloons and at certain times of the year your Mom and Dad hustled you across the street just “because”; later I found out it was because a cowhand had passed out in a doorway. I still recall wanting nothing more than a pair of cowboy boots and blue jeans to walk just that way like they did in the Lone Ranger and Rifleman.

It was Stampede and I had to get out of the city. As I wrote in my journal: “it feels like my head is being crushed”. In town, the sidewalks were filled with not the cowboys I grew up around in Kamloops but the Ricky Rodeos who forgot that the bullshit is supposed to be on the outside of the boots. I’ve always loved the Porcupine Hills and the sagebrush and short grass prairie south of Highway 3 and north of the 49th Parallel so I loaded up the truck and headed south.

In a review on Amazon.com of Ian Tyson’s album “I Outgrew the Wagon” Jim Cleary writes:
“You'll smell the dust and sage; you'll feel the blazing sun and stinging sleet; and you'll hear the sound of the wind in the wire. The prairie’s infinite expansiveness, its quiet and loneliness and unquenchable thirstiness, its midday deadness and its spring to life at low sun, it's nourishing protection for the lucky and its steadfast brutality for the unprepared.”
And the sky. Oh my lord the sky. It arches over you streaming to forever. It’s different than up in the Peace Country. I always felt the sky there oppressive, pressing down on you like the Lutheran god of the Swedes and Norwegians that settled there. The southern sky just is. It passes no judgement, pays no heed to the busy-ness of man. It can be quick to anger: a prairie thunderstorm can appear and disappear in a blink leaving flattened fields, damaged buildings, flooded streams and roads. It can also caress: sitting by the side of the road, the breeze rustling the grass, brushing your face and carrying away the cares of the world. 

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a very good landscape photographer. I find that I just can’t capture the emotions I feel when confronted with some of the vistas that I have here in my backyard. But hey, I tried. It’s something that takes time, like writing cowboy poetry. 

I have to come clean that I’ve fudged a bit. The standard 3x2 “full-frame” and 4x3 “Micro-Four Thirds” aspect ratios don’t do bupkis to help me get even close to showing my feelings of expanse: I cropped the images to a 16x9 aspect ratio to try to get me there. This is truly a subject area that needs a wiiiiide canvas.

As you drive through Porcupine Hills you come across ranches, some old, some new, some gone, some not much changed from when they were founded. Some are nestled in the hills; some are out in the open. This one is long gone and only the sighing of the wind bears witness to what once was.

Abandoned Ranch, Porcupine Hills
The month of July had brought storm after storm roiling out of the mountains and onto the plains. After slithering up the wet gravel, I crested a hill and whompf! There it was: the foothills, the Rockies and the sky. I wondered what de La VĂ©rendrye felt when he crested a hill like this one in 1743.
Southern Rockies, North of Pincher Creek
The next day I set out from Lethbridge and headed back west, heading south towards Del Bonita, now a ghost town although the two teacherages are for sale.
The sky to north would be threatening a nasty series of thunderstorms brewing, even in the early morning. This turbulent sky was to be my constant companion for the rest of the day. 
Canola and Fence Line
Heading deeper into the south and east, as if being drawn to the Sweetgrass Hills by a magnet, the land changes from cropland to sagebrush and short grass prairie. This is the land of the cowboy.

Short Grass and Sagebrush
Old Corral and Sagebrush (Thanks, Ian)
And always, always, the sky.
Brewing Storm
South, south, further and further south on the gravel roads until you brush up against the United States. The Sweetgrass Hills, at first just a ripple on the horizon now are the landscape rising up purple, untouched by the great Pleistocene ice sheets. 
Sweetgrass Hills
Sweetgrass Hills #2
All through this trip the ghosts of the cowboys were riding with me: Casey Tibbs, Bob Fudge, Jerry Ambler. Authors Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour were with me too; their descriptions of the prairie and the purple sage with me. It is a beautiful land and I hope that these images do it justice: I'll keep going back until my images do. 


Working Stiffs

It's been a while since I've written anything about, let done anything with a backlog of images dating to summer of last year.

First some background. My day job was (note the use of the word was) working as a flight coordinator for a charter airline. The airline flew oil company personnel to and from work sites in Northern Alberta and British Columbia. With the current geopolitical situation driving oil prices to below the costs of production (let's face it, the Western Sedimentary Basin and the Oil Sands are not low cost production environments) the flying started to slow down and my shift switched from a four on, four off rotation to three days on the weekends. All well and good. I had to do something productive with my time so I took in upon myself to write a boat load of software (something I did in a previous life, back when dinosaurs ruled and Borland was still a real company) for the OCC to streamline our operations, revamp the operations handbook and develop a series of online courses. Oddly enough this kinda sapped any creative juices I had left and I only photographed in fits and starts.

Well, as you can surmise, the flying kept going down and I got laid off about two weeks ago. No big deal, shit happens. I'll just re-invent myself, again (even though it is getting a litle stale, this re-inventing business, it being the third or fourth time; I've lost count).

Wouldn't you know it, I was able to return to the backlog and there, the creative juices started to flow. I noticed that I had a quite a few images of the working man, the guy that BTO sang about in opening verse "Takin' Care of Business". You know the ones: the ones who deliver the beer, make sure the traffic flows, make sure that the lads don't get out of control. The ones who build our buildings, clean our streets, catch our fish. I went back to some off my older images, and found a seam of hard working souls that had gone unrecognized.

I'll be adding to this collection and what is in the post gallery will change over time as images get added and deleted as the concept unfold.

After the parade, the sweeper comes always comes out. It's a tiresome job and it never seems to end.
New York cops, like the boys from Joisey have a natural knack for hanging out. These guys in Times Square on a hot and very muggy evening were watching the usual goings on with a sense of ennui that only comes from having seen it all night after night after night.
Another Night at Times Square
Steveston Docks is where you can buy fresh fish in Vancouver, right off the boat. It was one of those cold, damp, foggy days; the Scots would call it dreich. This fisherman kept warm by a space heater at his feet and bundled up in a parka was selling this morning's catch of spotted shrimp
Shrimp on Ice
Calgary has its dreich days as well, usually in early March when the rain is mixed with wet snow. This delivery driver is loading up in Chinatown with beef from a hole in the wall butcher shop.
Finally, this old timer was photographed in Nobleford, Alberta. He's retired, but had worked as a rig hand across the Prairies and from north of the Arctic Circle down to the Middle East. We spent a pleasant while yarning about the patch (I've worked the rigs too) and I was able to make this image.
Rig Hand
So here's to all those folks: the ones who make sure things get done. 

You can view the project here.


Insecurities, Navel Gazing and Just Getting On With It

It's been a while. I've been sitting on three photo shoots from all over and have really dragged my ass in getting them into something workable. The reasons are manifold: converting the backroom to a studio, the normal vicissitudes of domestic life and, more to the point, wrestling with what goes in, what goes out and what gets filed in "Maybe Later: The Nascent Project File"

For the past while I've been watching the photostream of the G+ Communities I subscribe to with a certain amount of disquiet; nothing overt but more a Columbo-esque "somethin's been botherin' me" kind of niggle in the quiet recesses of my brain. The best way I can put it is like this: "Is it just me, or are people just posting 'happy snaps' and passing them off as photographs? And why is it that frequent posters are not showing any improvement in story telling, technique, drama tension, humour or composition?" I have other questions that I can't articulate yet but it all forms quite the interesting cocktail party in that area of my brain. Admittedly G+ contributors are all enthusiastic amateurs (in the best sense of the word) like myself so perhaps these perceptions are realistic given the population of these communities.

On top of this there have been several insightful articles with titles such as "Kill Your Babies" (on editing your work) and "Street Photography Has No Clothes". These are but two but you get my drift.

It is with this in the background that I pulled back completely to ponder my a) editorial process, b) my entire process of engaging with the environment in which I work on any given day and c) am I getting any better or is just random chance that I make an image that is decent and finally d) are any of the images that friends and family say are good, good or is just a mercy compliment?

I finally decided that all of this was, in the end, just mental masturbation and that I should just get on with things. It was in reading Minor White's article in the first issue of Aperture that kicked me out of my funk. If you don't have it, buy "Aperture Magazine Anthology - The Minor White Years" and you'll see that many photographers today are just treading the same road as White, Lange, Newhall, and the rest trod all those years ago.

With that, I'm going to start with a my second shoot and work my way around to the other two in future posts.

I was in New York this summer for about a week (never long enough) and walked. I think I logged about 25 miles a day. After letting them stew in LightRoom for a few weeks I edited down the equivalent of 20 rolls of 36 down to 14 images that I thought were OK. After shuffling the order around to see what narratives and groupings popped out I found that I had 3 things running through the 14: Children, Workers, and Isolation.


It was odd that I had taken so many images of children as I normally don't photograph them, more out of respect and not wanting to be a creep, but I was presented with such rich opportunities that this is what fell out:



It was brutally hot in NYC when I was there but the hard work of making the city run has to continue.



I've been working on two projects called "Converse" and "Communion". They're not very strong projects yet, but I think there is some meat on those bones I can make a decent stew from given some time. Conversation's obverse is Isolation and even in Times Square (which in the summer at peak tourist season makes a Japanese subway car at rush hour seem spacious) there are moments of isolation.


All Said and Done

Looking at these, I think there is one great image that could stand on its own without any other context. Perhaps three others that are strong enough to be included in a portfolio. Kill your babies.


A Reflecton on "Photographs Not Taken"

I've been reading a thought provoking little book "Photographs Not Taken" edited by Will Steacy. Many book blurbs say this book is a collection of essays by photographers about failed attempts to make a picture. I concur with the description by the publisher however: "about moments that never became a picture". It's a big difference, that change in phrasing and I think the former denigrates Steacy original aim.

The essays are short, some just a few paragraphs. Others run to two or three pages. Some are lists, some are stream of consciousness, others are diary entries. Although some commentards disagree, I was struck by how articulate (in there own way) these photographers are; they who work by telling our stories visually. Each essay is a thoughtful reflection on the circumstances surrounding an event where the shutter was not released (or in some cases shouldn't have been released).

Several themes appear throughout the book behind why an image was not made:
  • Respect for the subject/moment
  • Looking back to youth when photography was not on their radar
  • Acts of violence (random or premeditated) that required other responses
  • A realization that the moment was not meant to be or could not be shared
And yet, for each moment "that never became an image" there is no regret, no "aw shucks", no "woulda, coulda, shoulda". Rather there is a restful acceptance that even though no physical image was made, the image and all of its emotions remain with the photographer for good or ill.

This book also provides an insight into how photographers think about photography, what it means to be a photographer and what a photographers responsibilities are.

Hetherington's description of the the flight from Monrovia with rebel forces is unnerving: you feel like an adrenalin junkie when he finally ends with:
"There isn’t much more to add, but I always remember that day and the feeling of being so empty — physically, mentally, and spiritually — that it  was impossible to make the photograph."
Doug Dubois lamenting his lack of courage to stop photographing his subject and hiding the resulting images in a box.

Chris Jordan gently remembering an image of a backyard barbeque that took on a mystical aura but was never made; now residing in a private exhibition in his mind to be visited at will.

Ed Kashi on how at the end of a shoot in Lahore happening on a horrific car wreck springing into action to help the injured, putting aside the urge to make an image.

I don't profess to have been in the same situations as the photographers in this book nor do I have the same breadth and depth of experience as they (let alone being in the same league). Perhaps like Lisa Kereszi the images I didn't make happened while I was young: those images in my memory of my extended family, those images I did make while the images I should have made were peering over my shoulder but in my youthful arrogance I ignored (and can no longer remember).

Now, approaching 60 (god that weirds me out) I am finally hitting my stride, learning to make the images that need to be made for me, by me as well as images that will not be made by me. Yes, like Ed Kashi says,
"Usually there are various ethical, personal, or tactical reasons for this decision."
I usually baulk when I can't do the subject justice or treat the subject with dignity that any subject is due. Having suffered from depression, I will not photograph the mentally ill or the outcasts unless somehow I can build a bridge with them and in someway tell their story. Anything else is just a cheap shot.

This book is a must read for anyone who thinks about what it means to be an honest photographer. This book is a reminder that to be a successful and dare I say mature photographer you have to be truly present and in the moment: even if that means not making an image.

"Photographs Not Taken" Edited by Will Steacy Published by Daylight Books ISBN 978-0983231615


Always ask yourself: "I wonder..."

After my New York trip I had just enough time to put in a few shifts in the OCC before heading out with my nephew on our annual photo tour. This year we explored but a small portion of the almost deserted southeast corner of the Palliser Triangle in Alberta.

One of the projects I've been working on is the depopulation of rural Alberta, making images of what is and who are left and the stubborn optimism that stays with those that remain. Sometimes driving into town you're lucky and you meet people, other times there is not a soul, just the sound of the wind and the roar of the vehicles on the highway bypassing town. I'll be posting more about this later; right now I'd like to share a few thoughts on solving problems and puzzles.

As photographers one of the things we are called on to do is solve problems. Often we don't even know we are solving problems, the problem appears, our brain recognizes it: "Ah yes, 3.45.a: Do this, that and that." and presto and image is made. Sometimes, the problem is such (as in this post by Kirk Tuck) the solution requires as much planning and logistics as the Normandy landings. Other times, you just have to sit and look and say to yourself: "I wonder..."

On our travels, we were motoring along Highway 61, which is part of the "Red Coat Trail" we wheeled into Nemiskam. Not a lot left there now, two dwellings, one of which is surprisingly new (a micro house) and a larger property secluded in trees. There are a few abandoned buildings, but of interest was the remains of an old gas station. The windows have long since been boarded up, but as I was working the site I noticed the boards had 3/4" holes drilled through the thick particle board.

Peering through the holes, I saw that the roof had partially collapsed allowing a splash of light over the detritus that has accumulated since it was abandoned. Well, there you go, but I knew that if I put my 'Cron or any other lens up to the hole I get mostly particle board and not a lot of image. Time to step back and think. Aha! In the past I've shot through chain link fences by fitting the lens through the links. What camera do I have that has a front element that could peep through the hole minimizing the influence of the boards? I had my hands in my pocket and there was my iPhone.

I wonder...

Sure enough, it worked.

Nemiskam Garage

Nemiskam Garage
Never give up on an opportunity. Work it. Solve the problem. Say: "I wonder".


Film at 11

House of Vintage (Ricoh 500, Ilford PAN-F)
In my previous post I couldn’t find a lab in town that would pull process C-41 film and ended up sending 4 rolls of XP-2 and 2 rolls of PanF 50 to Ilford Labs in California.

Last Thursday I got them back and I am very, very impressed with the results: no water marks, no scratches, no dust. Even the medium quality scans they provided on CD are of remarkably good quality with minimal dust. The images in this post are from those scans. In short, worth the 16 bucks a roll and the wait. I don't think I could even do silver as well as these guys back when I did process silver.

A few things jumped out at me:
  • I used the Sunny 16 rule to guide my metering with the Ricoh and it worked very well, even with the Ricoh’s non-standard shutter speed scale.
  • I’m going to have to retire my dear old friend, the OM-2. It’s been with me for decades, but it looks like the electronic shutter is losing its mind. You know, lots of blank exposures even though everything sounded like all was well: mirror up, mirror down, sundry mechanical noises. It's not about the batteries; if it was, the OM4 would have acted the same way. It’s not worth the dosh to get this old campaigner fixed, it goes back into my camera cabinet to slumber: the battery munching OM-4 and the not so voracious OM-4T will have to take its place.
  • XP2 works very nicely when pulled 1 stop. Put a yellow filter on it and it prods buttock.
  • PAN F 50 is a freaking awesome film.
Below are a few examples using the Ilford provided scans. This coming week I’m firing up my scanners (V750 and Coolscan V ED to compare the two) and do some hi-res work. Stay tuned.

The negative looks better than the scan. I think it'll respond nicely as a 16 bit tiff but it does capture the searing sun of the prairie around these parts. Back in the day I'd print this on a hard paper.
Stavely Hotel (Ricoh 500, XP2 pulled 1 stop)
 A bit of filtration and XP2 responds nicely
Stavely Hotel (OM-2, Yellow filter, XP2 pulled 1 stop)
 I can't believe the dynamic range on this one! It's only an 8 bit jpeg but wow!
Bulk Landscaping Supplies, Marpole Vancouver (Ricoh 500, PAN-F 50)

Busker, Granville Street (OM-2, XP2 pulled 1 stop)
 I metered the bricks using my iPhone Pocket Light Meter app and waited with the Ricoh for this to evolve. Bit of cropping and we'll be golden.
Baby and Parking Guy (Ricoh 500, Ilford PAN-F)
Remember, these are just 8 bit low res jpegs. I can hardly wait for days off to get into working with these and more!


Stuck In Calgary With the Rangerfinder Blues Again

The Gang of Four Roam the Streets

I try not to write too much about cameras and technology in this blog. Brand A vs Brand B, film vs digital and all the other raging debates on the various fora on the intertubes don’t really occupy a lot of cycles for me. Over the past few months however, I’ve had an interesting time making images due to the fact that my Leica M-E had to be sent in for some warranty work and a CLA “while you’re at it.”

I’d been shooting with my M-E for almost two years and in late in January I started noticing bizarre patterns when I applied my “dust bunnies” curve in LightRoom to the images I made with the M-E. I recalled seeing something on a Leica feed about this and did some rummaging and found that yes: I had the dreaded sensor corrosion problem. To Leica’s credit, they’ll replace your sensor for free, regardless of how old your M-E/M-9 is.

Early in February I took the camera into The Camera Store in Calgary. My camera guy Stephan confirmed what I was seeing, bundled up the M-E and sent it away to the Leica Maintenance facility.

Now I was faced with a problem: what to photograph with? I did use my E-P2 for a while, but it was not as immediate and I fought continually with its “I’ll focus here, regardless of where you think I’ll focus” mindset. Don’t get me wrong, I love the camera dearly: small, light, great image quality, especially with the 45mm f1.8 lens. It just felt, well, fiddly. It’s still part of my day to day kit and shares the bag with the M-E.

I really liked the immediacy and total control I had experienced with the Leica and looking over my storage cabinet I pulled out my father’s Ricoh 500. This camera is as old as I am (pushing 60) and I’ve used it in the past and works like it’s new. I bought a couple of rolls of XP-2 figuring that it would be “easy” to get C-41 processed. I decided to pull it one stop because on a sunny day, you’re shooting at 1/500 (maximum shutter speed) at f/16. -1 stop gave me 1/250 at f/11. This decision would return to haunt me.

Working with the Ricoh was as delightful as working with the Leica. It was so stealthy, so quiet: just a slight “snick” as the leaf shutter did its magic. The rangefinder, despite it's 60 years was still clear, a bit dark, but clear and worked like a charm.

Getting into a real groove, I pulled out my OM-2n to work with as well. Batteries were a bit of a dilemma, but even though all the pundits say that the 3v lithium cells are not recommended (without providing a reason) they work fine. The Ricoh had a 45mm lens so I mounted my favourite lens of all time, the Zuiko 100 f/2.8. This is a dreamboat piece of glass: sharp, great contrast and in the words of Digital Review’s Kai: “bokehlicious”.

It was also looking like a long wait for the Leica, so I decided to run Ilford Pan-F 50 in the Ricoh as that gave me lots of room to play aperture wise on reasonably bright days. I selected Ilford Delta 100 to use in the OM-2: a yellow K2 filter that would give me the same exposure values as the Ricoh. I really am not enamored with fast films like HP-5, Tri-X and such, especially here in the high foothills where the light is overwhelming and harsh. The “Sunny 16” rule is more like a “Sunny Something much more than 16” rule the light is so god damn hard. With cameras that are limited to 1/1000s (1/500s on the Ricoh) shutter speeds you really run out of aperture fast.

Working with my old friend the OM-2n (and later my OM-4T) showed me just how far digital camera manufacturers still have to go to make a useable viewfinder. These are bright and huge! Even the Leica seems cramped in comparison! The split-image rangefinder and the micro-prism focusing ring were a delight discover all over again. Why DSLR manufacturers can’t put this in their optical viewfinders is beyond me. I’ve yet to find a cogent argument for not including these features.

I loved working with these three cameras. This is how it’s supposed to be: immediate, with no barrier between you and your subject and excellent ergonomics that don’t get in the way.

Brother of an Other Mother

I got the M-E back last week and I’ve been working with it as well as the Ricoh. If I had to choose one over the other I couldn’t: both are so easy to use, so well designed, so well-built that you feel confident with them.

I also spent a day working the Leica next to the OMs: again, brothers of different mothers. I really can’t favour one over the other. Both just work and don`t get in the way.

What was it about these cameras that make them such a pleasure to use, what lets them fade out of the way between you and your subject?
  • Ergonomics – Everything is where you expect it to be. In fact on all three brands, all the major controls turn the same way, feel the same and are easy for your finger to find by touch. Surprisingly, they are all in similar places. No fiddly buttons that can be bumped by accident or that are undifferentiated in size or by texture. The viewfinders show only what is required: nothing more, nothing less. 
  • Lens construction – I love the well damped focus rings on the lenses that I use with these cameras: just the perfect amount of friction, just the right feel to the rubber. It just hammered home how much I despise the focus by wire nonsense that seems to be all the rage these days.
  • Build quality – these are robust bits of kit. There’s nothing flimsy, nothing fragile about them. All 4 cameras were designed for use by working photographers and you don’t feel as if you might break them if you look at them cross-eyed.
Put all this together and your imagination can soar because you leave the technology behind.

Developing Stories (Film at 11)

I’d run 4 rolls of XP-2 through the Ricoh and when I took them to “The Last MiniLab In Town” I was told that they no longer do C-41 pull or push processing. It’s not that they can’t do it, it’s just a setting after all, but they can’t be arsed, so they won’t.

Of course the selection of silver halide film opened up another can of worms: where to get them processed as well. I don’t like working with chemicals: never have. To top it off I really don’t have anywhere to mix and work with them. The thought of pouring spent chemicals down the sink and on to the water treatment plant with no silver recovery in place seems wrong to me. I’d rather find a third party that’s set up to work with this stuff.

I ended up sending my first batch of C-41 and silver halide film to Ilford in the US. It’s not cheap. If they don’t work out, there’s a custom lab in Vancouver I’m going to try. When I get the results back I’ll share them here. There is a pro here in town that will do silver but I used him once in the past and got the negatives back scratched with water spots: Ugh!

And In the End

Will I continue to shoot film? Yes, of course. Will I drop digital? No way. Both have their place and I’ll shoot them side by side in the same shoot if needed. It’s not either/or for me.

I’ve got as near to perfect digital cameras as you can get; I’ve got the perfect film cameras. I’m a happy man.