Backlog II - Roadside Attractions

Driving around Alberta and even walking around Calgary and Vancouver you stumble across all manner of roadside attractions. I only discovered that I was amassing a body of work of things I found by the side of the road. Although not as flamboyant as oversized perogies, easter eggs and UFO landing pads the ones I was collecting were a bit smaller, ranging from defunct pizza restaurants in the middle of nowhere to bright pink store signage on Denman in the west end of Vancouver.

This was another one of those "Let's go to x and see what we can find". In this case, "x" was Waterton National Park. Like my visit to Rosebud and Drumheller, my output from there didn't make the final cut. Lot's of nice postcard pictures but nothing that grabbed me. On the way there though...

There are several ways to get to Waterton National Park. One is to turn south  on Highway 2 when you leave Fort McLeod and head towards Standoff and Cardston.  On the way you'll see the "Sundance Restaurant - Fully Licensed" on the west side of the road. I don't mean to sound like some sardonic hipster, but you have to wonder about the business plan when there's absolutely bugger all in all directions save miles and miles of wheat, barley and canola fields.

I saw this coming up in the distance and pulled off to the side of the road while my ever patient teenage daughter sat in the car waiting for Dad to scamper across the road and work the setting. This one is the one of the set I like best, although I have three others in my gallery.

Fully Licensed
I stop in Fort McLeod on my way south, more to stretch my legs that anything else. While walking around I chanced upon an empty parking lot. This parking lot at one time must have been filled with buildings facing the street I was walking on but over the century, the buildings have vanished, leaving just one old farmer walking to the back of the hotel at the end of the street. When I framed the image, what I couldn't get over was the intensity of blue skies. I visualized it in black and white as I felt the the man would pop better against the white wall.

Walking down the main drag, I happened upon a little strip mall, two stores and a laundromat. In front of the laundry, this:

Please Wait Outside

I may be stretching the defintion of a roadside attraction, but in my defense, it was on the side of the road and it did attract me. I suppose that in the heat of summer, the humid laundromat and the smell of soap, bleach, and all the other things are just a little much; why not wait outside, grab some rays and have a coffee.

Technical Notes

All of these shots were with the Zeiss Biogon 35/2.8 on my Leica M-E. Cropped and processed in Lightroom and then SilverFX for the black and whites. 


Backlog - Sturm und Drang

I've been on a self-enforced shooting hiatus. Looking at a backlog of almost 900 images in Lightroom I felt that I was at risk of turning into some sort photographic magpie, collecting images for the sake of collecting them. So, over the last 5 weeks I've waded through them all and over the next couple of posts I'll be sharing and commenting on them.

The first tranche is from a collection I call "Springtime in Alberta" after the Ian Tyson song.

While I was on stress leave, I had a hankering to head down to Rosebud, Alberta. The shoot in Rosebud didn't amount to much. I did have one image that I thought would work but after my 3rd pass through (I sweep through the images multiple times in LR, narrowing down my choices) it just didn't stand up. I headed on down the road to Drumheller and it just wasn't working for me so I decided to head home. 

Climbing up out of the Red Deer River valley I saw a spring storm rolling in from the north. I pulled over to the side of the road and got the cameras ready. Looking over my shoulder and out the passenger window I'd drive a few kilometers and stop. One of my first shots was of farmhouse framed in sunlight from the south with a roiling mass of cloud running out of the north looking for all the world it was sent by God to some good old fashioned Old Testament smiting.

Island in the Storm
I processed this in Lightroom and then used GoogleNik SilverFX. If you haven't bucked up for the Nik Suite, I really recommend that you do. Back when you had to spend almost the price of Photoshop for all the Nik tools I'd have thought twice, but now it's priced so well that you really can't afford not to get them.

I jumped back in the truck and headed east. That's when I saw the grain bins. The folks behind me must have thought me mad as I wheeled off the road and jumped out of the truck with my Leica (I had it around my neck as I was driving so I didn't have to fiddle around). In both colour and this black and white version I had images of of those dust bowl storms that blew the top soil across the prairies in the '30s. 

I've got two versions of this next image and I'm not sure which I like better. 

Maximum 80

Maximum 80
I think the black and white could use some more work. I think I used SilverFX control point tools I could open up the road a bit and create some more drama. My wife liked the colour version better right now I tend to agree. 

Technical Details

All images where taken with a Leica M-E and a Zeiss Biogon 35mm f/2.8. Inital processing was in Lightroom and then in SilverFX.

Upon closer inspection I can see I missed some dust bunnies (quite a few actually). I had been changing lenses quite a bit in Rosebud and Drumheller and I'd forgotten that unlike my Olympus gear, Leica didn't think to add a dustbuster. Of course, with the way these images are laid out, it's hard to find the dust. Every time I looked I found a few more hiding in the clouds. I've found a technique that will give me a better chance at finding them so I'll be going back into these to "kill the wabbits". It involves some jiggery pokery with the tone curve to highlight the specks. 


Some "New" Books on My Bookshelf

I've made a promise to myself to read one book about photography every month. Some months I succeed, other months I don't. It's a convenient excuse really; an excuse to buy photo books and books about photography. This can be an expensive proposition; good photobooks aren't cheap. On the other hand books about photographic design and criticism are few and far between. 

I've been fortunate though to find a good source in Calgary. Besides "Fairs Fair", a used bookstore, there's HomeSense. HomeSense is like an upscale Liquidation World and from time to time gets surplus photo books from sources unknown. These books are all in good nick and seldom cost more than 10 to15 bucks. The only problem is that the selection is pretty hit and miss and sometimes months go by without a photo book appearing.  

Pleasant Surprise

Although I'm not a huge fan of Ansel Adams, "Unseen Ansel Adams: Photographs from the Fiat Lux Collection" was a suprise to find in HomeSense. The Fiat Lux Collection was the result of a three year project for the Centennial of the University of California resulting in apecial centennial book, "Fiat Lux: The University of California". To quote from the UC Berkely Bancroft Libray's Fiat Lux web page:

"Fiat Lux was intended not as a document of the university as it was, but rather a portrait of the university as it would be. Kerr [University President at the time) asked the artists to project through words and photographs, as far as possible, “the next hundred years”— impossible, of course, but a provocative invitation that the artists embraced. The Fiat Lux project was a massive endeavor, producing 605 fine prints and over 6,700 negatives, far more than the 1,000 images stipulated in Adams’s contract. After Adams’s lifetime devotion to Yosemite, Fiat Lux was probably the biggest single project of his life."

"Unseen" is an extract of that collection. Some commentards on Amazon slag this book; I have to disagree with them. This was a commercial documentary project and often (as I've found working on the Heritage Park 50 Project) you can't put all of your art and soul into all the images. You have to shoot x, y and z and unfortunately x and y leave you cold while z shows some artistic possibilities. As a pro you give x and y your best effort to try to impart some artistic sensibilities to it but in the end it ends up as just another image.

Having said that, I enjoy this book much more than many of the other Adams collections that Adams Inc. have been pushing out the door. As I indicated above, I'm not a huge fan of Adams; perhaps I've been saturated by his Yosemite photos. I do find the work that everybody goes ga-ga over, while technical tour-de-forces from an exposure and printing perspective, lacking something. To me they fail to capture the visceral nature of his subjects and sit cold and lifeless on the page staring back at me as I ask them the question "What are you trying to tell me?"; the answer is stoney silence. (Perhaps, as well, I'm still narked by that line in his autobiography that the Canadian Rockies where boring and didn't present any true photographic possibilities)

The images in this book, while exhibiting the same technical prowess that is a hallmark of all of Adams' work are much more pleasurable for me. I look at them and try to deconstruct, to actually read the image. Some of the images have an impishness to them while others show a sense of wonder of the natural and the man-made world. The aerial work is stunning and the documentary photos showing the work of the University tells the story clearly and draws you in, studying with the students and the professors trying to understand what they are thinking.

If you find this book, take the time to read the images. I've learnt some things about telling stories in one image and I'm applying it to my street-work.

Tough Sledding

There are two books that are giving me no end of difficulty keeping to that promise: Sontag's "On Photography" and Barthes "Camera Lucida". Everytime I start one of these I end up like Sisyphus rolling this huge intellectual boulder up hill only to get interrupted and have it come crashing back down with me, running like Indiana Jones, trying to get the heck out of the way. I've been trying for 4 months now and I still haven't been able to swipe the idol from the temple (to horribly mangle the metaphor)

Both of these books require, for my marginal intellectual abilities at least, uninterrupted time sitting somewhere quiet. Of the two, Barthes presents the toughest sledding, not the least because it is a translation from the French. As well, he has a quirky writing style filled with asides, diversions and convolutions. The combination can leave my mind twisted into some unknown Wonderlandian topological construct. 

Sontag presents only a slightly lighter intellectual boulder to push up the hill. A much more direct writer she covers similar ground but from an American perspective. Neither Barthes nor Sontag are photographers, (in fact Barthes claims never to even taken a snapshot) but instead are philosophers. As such they are able to separate the mechanics (compositional theory, exposure, etc.) from the ideas presented by photography. Barthes begins by asking "What is a Photograph", Sontag begins by looking at the act of "taking a photograph". Again, following some of her arguments leaves me in bit of mental pretzel.

I will persevere and finish both these books as the ideas Barthes and Sontag present are worth trying to understand. Part of this journey to find my photographic vision and voice is to wrestle with ideas presented by people such as these and by understanding them (or not) grow in an understanding of this art form.

It's going to be an interesting Christmas break.


Scotty Doesn't Know and Other Images

Stephen Avenue Mall is about the closest thing Calgary has to a public square where life is lived as it happens. Running east-west through downtown it is where the ordinary people, the people outside of the office towers come to gather to visit, squabble, laugh, cry and sit in isolation. Only interrupted by the occasional business type that has, perhaps accidentally, ventured outside of the safe cocoon of  the Plus 15 they carry on ignoring the interloper. At noon on a sunny day the suits roil out of the buildings enroute to some bar that has a patio to indulge in the usual posturing of low and midlevel business types as they jockey for position on the corporate ladder.

The other day I was out and about on the mall after having coffee with an old mate from the dot-com days. The light was flat and dull and I was fighting a bad case of lurgi. The light was deceptive; looking outside you'd swear that the temperature would be around 12C, but in fact it was a warm and humid day.

Not a lot was happening on the mall. I was shooting in a rather desultory fashion and then this one popped and opened the dam

Scotty Doesn't Know
For some reason the couple reminded me of Donny and Fiona from Eurotrip. I like the shared laughter and also the people on the sandwich board peering over their shoulder at whatever (a love letter from Scotty?) they are enjoying.

After I shot this I started running into groupings of people visiting or sharing of themselves:


Looking at this one, I'm reminded of  Winogrand's "Worlds Fair, New York, 1964" I don't profess to be of Winogrand's caliber but like his photo there are several conversations happening and other people looking somewhere else at something that is much more interesting than the person next to them and behind them all, completely ignored is a homeless person and a piano player.

I guess as I moved down the mall, I came across more and more isolation. Donny and Fiona so into each other, the group of people together yet apart and finally this photo. I've seen this guy around the downtown core and there is something haunting about him. I struggled long and hard about whether or not I should publish this photo on the web. I ended up deciding that I should. My reasons are manifold but primarily I feel as I've treated the subject compassionately and sympathetically and I have to admit I'm on Short Term Disability because of PTSD and early on in my therapy I felt much like how he looks (if that makes sense) so for me there's some resonance and emotional relationship.

So Alone
All of these were shot with my Olympus E-P2 and the ZD 45/1.8 lens. I like this combination as the 35mm equivalent would be 90mm, a focal length I love dearly. It's hard shooting street with a portrait lens but you can get some really nice results. I cropped the images in LR and after RAW development I converted them to B&W using SilverFX.


Photowalk With My Nephew

Couple of weeks ago I invited my nephew to come over and spend a couple of days street shooting with me.

He's a neat kid and expressed an interest in photography over Christmas when I found him sitting at the kitchen table poring over the B&H Catalog. We got to talking about cameras and on Boxing Day he took his Christmas, birthday and newspaper money and went to Best Buy and bought an Olympus Ultra-Zoom, much to his parents surprise.

I think we both got a lot out of the two days shooting. I found that I had to articulate (and defend) ideas and concepts that I knew at a gut level but until then I had never really given voice to. If you're ever in a rut photographically, take a young person out who has shown an interest in the craft and share your knowledge. I found myself revitalized.

Anyway, this kid has the gift, IMO. At the age of 14 he's making images like this:

(c) 2013 Devon Wieliczko

And like this:

(c) 2013 Devon Wieliczko

The above images came about after we talked about trying to capture what makes an old truck and old truck, or as I explained to him, "the essence of Truckness". I think he nailed it. 

I struggled a bit for most of the two days, but I did find my groove a couple of times and I came up with these:

ADM Flour Mill and Trailers

Loungers: Bow River Viewpoint

Waiting at the Analog Cafe
Take the time some day to do this. You'll find that you'll learn more about photographs than you'll learn in any online forum. You'll also learn about yourself and the young person you are with. It's an insightful exercise.


Leica Akademie - Street Photography with Quinton Gordon

It’s been over a month since I attended the Leica Akademie’s workshop on “Street Photography” here in Calgary. If you are anywhere near a city where this course is being offered and you are in the least bit interested in Street Photography (Leica user or not) or want to get a feel for what it’s like I highly recommend this workshop. I attended because I wanted to spend sometime with other photographers in real life rather than online, to learn from everyone’s experiences and soak up as much information as I could.

The workshop I attended was facilitated by Quinton Gordon from Victoria, BC. Quinton’s a damn fine photographer and enjoys teaching and getting the best out the attendees. I hope that Leica will bring his other course “Truth in Photography” to Calgary in the future.

Day one started with a quick overview of Leica and we had a chance to “fondle” the M9, the Monochrome; unfortunately there was no M Typ240 on hand. Since I had the M9, I signed up to use the Summarit 90/2.5 as I’ve been using the 45/1.8 on my E-P2 to cover that portrait focal length (remember, 45mm in m43 has the same FOV as a 90 in 35mm) and wanted to see if I should save my change for that or a used Elmarit 90.

After the usual howdy-do’s Quinton launched into an overview of street photography, various street photographers from past to present and the changing styles of street photography. As a side note, I’d highly recommend Eileen Rafferty’s video “Art Movements Through Photography” on BHPhotoVideo’s channel on YouTube.

Quinton then spoke about the importance of understanding composition: not only the rule of thirds or the golden section but also the concepts of perspective, framing, motion and flow. Of course, he reminded us that these rules are guides and once understood can be bent, modified and ignored as required. He spoke about the lack of “classical art instruction” in most photographic schools or courses of instruction and how vital this is for making compelling images.  If you want to improve your composition, go to a museum and study what the masters did.

If I had to summarize the first day, I’d boil it down to the following:

  • Be aware when you are in the presence of a photograph,
  • Be discreet, blend in but don’t be a voyeur,
  • Be intimately familiar with you gear, not only from an operational perspective, but how different lenses in you bag will render a scene and what lens works where,
  • You won’t apply everything you learn here tomorrow or the next day. They will come to fruition later when you are ready for them.

After lunch we headed to Stephen Avenue and worked the streets for the remainder of the day until the light our feet got sore.

I really liked using the Summarit 90. I’ve always enjoyed this focal length (or close to it) and some of my favourite film shots have been with the Olympus Zuiko 100/2.8 on my OM cameras. It allowed me to shoot discreetly and although I was worried about mis-focussing with a narrower depth of field it went fairly well; mind you I was “f8 and be there” for most of my time with this lens. A 90mm M-mount lens is in my future. I have no idea how I’m going to fund it though.

Day 2 we met up in Inglewood for more practical work. I got there early in the morning as the aviation forecast called for overcast skies around the meeting time and snow about two hours afterwards. (The civilian forecast didn’t say anything about the weather going sideways).

I struggled a bit as even with what little light there was in the morning, the whole vibe on the street just wasn’t working for me. I muddled around a bit but my mind just wasn’t there.

As the forecast snow squall descended we returned to the classroom to edit our two days of shooting down to three images. In the days of film and soup I might have finished 2 half days of shooting with maybe 4 or 5 rolls to develop. Editing down 180 images to three from 5 contact sheets is a lot different than editing down the 500 images you can stuff on an 8 gig card and display in Lightroom. I wasn’t multi-shooting all that much; you know, shoot, re-frame a bit, shoot again and so forth. I’d work a single location or subject from various angles but there wasn’t a lot of wastage.

Like Quinton suggested, my editing (and I don’t mean post-processing here) has been multiple passes, starting with a rough cut of “1 star” images. I then progress up through the star system. If I have two similar images I use Lightroom’s candidate/current view.
After every pass I filter on the current number of stars I’ve given. Ideally, once I get to 3 or 4 stars, I like to let my catalogue sit for a few days and then revisit the images but we had to get everything ready for critique in three hours so, like the Iron Chef I soldiered on.

By the time I got done, I was down to 3 images of two different themes: “Different Directions” and “Graphics”. I went back and forth and back and forth and decided on “Different Directions” by tossing a coin.

Quinton’s comments where encouraging. He suggested that I had a surrealist streak and preferred formal compositions. He liked my telephoto work in that he said I understood how the focal length compresses stories together and allows for juxtaposition of stories. He told me that I need to work on my framing, that is, I frame too tightly and don’t give the story enough room to enter and exit the frame.

What did I learn?

I learnt that

  • I need to work on visiting with people to photograph their stories. I visit but I end up listening to their stories and forget to take the picture!
  • my preference for distance from the subject is natural because I’m comfortable with the focal length and know how to use it to say what I’m trying to say
  • my framing is sometimes too tight; my photos need to breathe more
  • I need to stay on top of my writing, a month is way too long for me sit on a post!
I don't know about the surrealism bit. I always visualize Dali when I hear that word but HCB was an original surrealist so who knows?

Different Directions

Over There
Look Here
Different Directions


White Stripe

Vinyl Dress

The Blues Can


Recently Read "The Ongoing Moment"

It's been quite the hectic few weeks here fotographie wester.  Even though I'm on medical leave (long story, don't ask) the offspring have kept me jumping. I have been able to fit in some very good days of shooting and I'll be working through those and sharing the results and my thoughts soon.

I finished Geoff Dyers "The Ongoing Moment" a few weeks ago while waiting for my daughter to finish dance class. I've had this book in my hands several times over the last few years and every time I've put it back. I ended up buying the paperback version and wish I had bought the more sumptuously published hardback when it came out as the black and white reproductions in the text are barely newspaper quality.

It's a good read and really gets you thinking about the chain that binds all of us together from Fox-Talbot to Stieglitz to Strand to Keretz and so on. There where times that I threw the book down grumbling (quite loudly according to my kids and my dog): "Fercrissakes Geoff, sometimes a frikkin'  cigar is just a frikkin cigar!". He can sometime read a lot more into a situation than is healthy and in that regard he reminds me of my 1st year English professor at UVic; she spent several lectures belabouring the symbolism of "crabs scuttling across the ocean floor" in some poem or other (I think it had Prufrock in the title).

But then, after he gets the seemingly obligatory sophomoric tittering about Stieglitz and Strand and OKeefe and Strand's wife Rebecca's tangled relationships out of the way, he hits his stride (the cigars make
occasional cameos). I found I would read 10 pages and sit and think about what I had read (either that or I have late onset ADD). I'd get frustrated, annoyed and then pissed off. Other times it'd be "Yeah, that's it: Brilliant!".

It's a book that has to be read from start to finish, in sequence. It's a lot like Walker Evans book "The Americans" where Evans says "these photos are to be viewed in order". You can skip around, but each of Dyer's riffs builds on the previous riff and like a complex fugue it builds and builds and builds and then stops.

The bibliography is worth the price of admission and I do hope that I can find some of those books he refers to still in print.

What did I learn? I learnt that I'm part of a long history. Everybody takes a picture of a bench, a fence, a barbershop, a man in a black overcoat. It's not cliched because we all have emotional baggage that informs the bench, fence, or whatever we take a picture of. It's only when we want to photograph a fence like Strand  did or a the loneliness of a the man in the black overcoat like Kertez that we fail. That bench is my bench and it is up to me and only me to put my feelings into the image of that bench, not what I think someone else things an image of a bench should feel like.

Dyer was sitting on my shoulder quite a bit when I was at the Leica Akademie class on Street Photography. I kept telling him to go away and let Quinton Gordon speak so I could take what both of them were saying. Dyer, of course, did no such thing; my output from the workshop was a fairly bizarre hybrid of what Quinton was trying to teach and Dyer's musings. I'll talk about that workshop later.

It's a book anybody interested in photography should read. It forces you to challenge what and how you think about photography and when you come out the other side you'll find yourself returning back to listen to one riff or another or start riffing on your own as you walk around town seeing things through your viewfinder.




I'm on a journey. I doubt that I will ever finish the journey but this collection of writings, I hope, will document my journey.

I bought my first camera at the age of 16, a Praktica LTL with lawn mowing money. Deep down I had harboured fantasies of being the next Bob Capa. It never happened. I chose, rightly or wrongly, to become a geophysicist, even though I had the option at registration of going into English and Journalism. A toss of a coin (how's that for career planning) and here we are today.

Of late I've been wanting to seriously improve my photographic efforts, reading voraciously, going to galleries, shooting almost every day (I have to be careful not to go all Winograd and get into the darkroom and do something with those images, like learn from them), and attending seminars and workshops when they roll into Calgary.

So, I hope you join me on my voyage of discovery. Comments, critiques and respectful conversation are always welcome.