Zis iz zee castle of my master, Guy de Lombard!

Well, not really, but this is photograph a friend of mine made while he was skiving rather than being at the conference he was supposed to be at. He'd posted it on a private board after doing some tinkering and I thought to myself: "Hang on, I think we can get a bit more out of the image than that." He kindly posted the RAW file for me to play with. The image was made by a Samsung NX30, 1/2500 @ f/6.3, ISO 200.

When I first looked at the RAW file in Lightroom, I was surprised at just how much detail was still available in the shadows given bright sky and the dark castle walls.
Original Image
In LR, I did the following adjustments:
Lightroom Adjustments
The original exposure was OK but I really hit the Highlights and Shadows settings (I also cloned the bird on the left out. Bloody seagull) I found the RAW file to be remarkably robust to this sort of heavy handed tweaking. The only disconcerting thing was the two pure green spots on the castle wall. I think that this is a hot or dead pixel. I did end up cloning them out after I had run the file through Viveza. After this LR jiggery-pokery I ended up with this:
Lightroom Adjustments
I wanted to lighten up the Welsh flag a bit as I found it a bit dark. I opened the image in NIK Viveza 2.0 (Hey Google, if you're going to abandon the NIK suite, at least have the decency to open source it!) After tweeking the overall brightness, warmth, structure and shadows, using a Control Point set on the flag green of the flag I tweeked the brightness and saturation giving me this:
After Viveza 2.0
Not bad, not bad at all. Now, NIK has a tone mapping HDR application so, since I was going all McGyver on this image anyway, why not try that. There's lots of pre-built settings, ranging from neutral to "OMFG the acid has just kicked in!" Here's the three that I tried:
NIK HDR Pro Tone Map "Neutral" Setting
NIK HDR Pro Tone Map "Balanced" Setting
NIK HDR Pro Tone Map "Artistic B/W" Setting
I think I prefer my handbombed colour processing using LR and Viveza over any of the HDR colour presets.

I do like the B/W except for the burnt out sun, so back to the original image and this time I loaded it up in Viveza and set a control point on the burnt out sun and reduced the brightness until I got it to blend in to the cloud bank. Next I ran it through NIK HDR tone mapping, selecting the "Natural" preset. Finally into the ab fab NIK SilverFX. I selected the Ilford HP5 profile and worked with the fine structure, brightness, dynamic brightness and soft contrast sliders until I got this:
NIK SilverFX
This I think is the image I felt was hiding inside the image (except for the bright pixels and the bloody seagull)

For my friend, who is a Linux guy, I think you can do the LR adjustments and Viveza style spot adjustments in Darktable. I've got it running on Junior but I just haven't had the time to understand the UI yet. I don't know what application you'd use to do the tone mapping HDR, but LightZone does run on Linux and it does some pretty neat tone mapping.

Oh, and if Mike from Australia is reading this, well, you know what to do...


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!