Welcome to my blog. I like to use this as a place to expand on the work in this site, the stories behind the photographs, current and past activities, and observations and reflections on photography. Feel free to participate by adding your own comments or impressions.

Defining a great image

You might get lucky and take a great photo but doing this over and over is another matter. There's a distinction between a good picture and a great picture. While the terms may be used subjectively, you can create good images by simply being proficient with the craft. In fact, we are inundated with good images but they are mostly meaningless. This is especially true in television, it's principal purpose seemingly being to awe, and distract us, dispelling any kernel of thought while keeping us transfixed. The blur of motion, color, impossible perspectives, and hypnotic slow motion has habituated us to expect more, an addiction to instant visual gratification. We've grown too impatient to linger on any one view or take. A few seconds is all we are allowed, lest we lose interest. Contemplation has become anathema to modern video.  Paradoxically, instead of being uplifted, you feel like you're getting bludgeoned. The effect is anesthetic. The vacuous stream acts as a central nervous system depressant. Your cognitive function is arrested. You are left empty and drained. In the wake of this torrent, a still photograph is an oasis of calm. There is far more to be gleaned from a single great image, than by a stream of empty visuals refreshing every second.  A really great image will maintain our attention because it defies explanation. Stripped of a verbal equivalence, we must rely on our intuition. The image becomes an experience onto itself, apart from the original subject. It's transformative. It may compel or inspire, or at best, completely still the mind. A few of the great photographers I think of are Jacques Henri Lartigue, Sebastiao Salgado, Irving Penn, Ansel Adams, Edward Steichen, Max Yavno, Gary Winogrand, Edward Weston, and Robert Mapelthorpe, among many others.


Photographing in Cuba

Bride, riding along the Malecon, Havana

 

I had the opportunity to visit Cuba in 2013 and spent a couple of weeks taking pictures, mostly in Havana. Despite the volume of photography that has already been produced in Cuba there is a wealth of material there, and you can quickly move beyond the photographic cliches that have become synonymous with the place. In hindsight, I actually regret that I deliberately chose to avoid one of these cliches, the classic cars from the 50's that Cubans have painstakingly maintained and kept on the road. There is really no cliche that can't be re-examined with fresh eyes and portrayed in a different or more revealing manner. Still, I chose to focus more on the people and the street life, and to some degree on the architecture, which in it's state of decay and neglect offers a rich tapestry that perhaps reveals more about this place than anything else.

 

Basketball game at a public park, Havana

 

In spite of the recent changes in the economic and political landscape Cuba remains a place where a certain authenticity has not yet been erased by the homogenizing effects of renovation and renewal. It's still a place where commerce, long kept in check by a moribund economic system, has yet to mar the landscape with billboards, messages, and sales pitches. You won't see walls whitewashed here, emblazoned as you might in Mexico with corporate brands such as Coca Cola or Pepsi. But the change is coming. It's already visible in the clothes people wear, with their designer labels and styles. Long suppressed by limited choices and scarcity, people are eager to express their individuality and freedom. This freedom is also expressed in the warmth and openness with strangers that one seldom finds elsewhere. People are friendly in Cuba. They haven't tired of outsiders, and don't mind if you take pictures. I found the best way to do this was to smile, say hello, and extend a hand. 

 

Woman leaning on a window, smoking

 

An impromptu chess match in the street

 

There's an immediacy to the street life in Cuba that's wonderful to photograph. Teeming with people, the streets are a theater of everyday life. The vibrancy of interactions between long time friends and neighbors, the habitual routines of residents as they go about their daily business was the subject I set out to portray. This is a place you can practice street photography almost at will. Even in the back alleys of poor neighborhoods, away from the tourist traffic, you can work with relative safety, confident that security is not a problem. I never felt like an unwelcome intruder here. No one was offended that I took their picture. With some sensitivity and understanding you can photograph the lifestyle here, meet new people and make some friends.

 


Architecture and HDR Photography

Child Development Center, Twentynine Palms, CA

The look of architectural photography has completely changed due to high dynamic range, or HDR, in digital photography. Dynamic range refers to the difference between the darkest and brightest areas in a photograph. High dynamic range is the ability to render tones and detail in all areas of the image. Thus a photograph of a building at sunset will render both the burst of bright color in the sky while retaining all the structural and tonal details of the building and landscape in the foreground. A properly processed HDR image will also retain contrast in the mid tones, without which the image would look flat. This would have been impossible with film without the use of additional lighting to brighten the building in the foreground; the dynamic range of film was limited, especially transparency film. Photographers had to choose the brightness values they wanted to expose for, which were usually the mid tones and the shadows. You would simply let the highlights go. Windows and skies would go white, creating a light, airy look to photographs but sacrificing content that might otherwise have been retained.  Essentially, digital imaging now makes it possible to create photographic images that more closely resemble the dynamic range of normal human vision. If overdone, the technique can also result in harsh, otherworldly images. So it's a relief that the novelty of HDR has lost some of it's appeal; the technique is now used more sparingly, with nuanced results. 

Home designed by Dean Meredith, Del Mar, CA


Are photographs real?

Pedestrian Bridge, Harbor Drive, San Diego CA

People still ask, though less frequently, if a photograph has been photoshopped. What they really want to know is are they looking at a "real" photograph or something fake. There's a story that Picasso was once taken to task by an acquaintance for painting portraits that didn't look real. Picasso is said to have asked the man if he had a picture of his wife. The man dutifully produced a small photo from his wallet. "Is that what she really looks like?" asked Picasso. "Yes, of course replied the man, feeling flattered." "I didn't know she was two inches tall" mused Picasso. True or not, the story points to the fact that photographs,  always presumed to be a factual and faithful reproduction of something real, are just representations. Even in the early days, the photographic image was manipulated in many ways to produce a desired result. Digital photography has not only facilitated this process by letting us change basic values like brightness, and color, we can now alter the actual content of an image. Blemishes can be removed, faces can be made thinner, clouds can be added to skies, faded foliage can be rendered in bright hues. Given a palette of choices with which to modify the world around us we have. Even in photojournalism where the imperative is to produce a factual representation our visual aesthetic offers wide latitude. If Sebastiao Salgado's amazing photographs were simple facsimilies of life they wouldn't be so unique. Edward Weston's classic nudes wouldn't be so iconic. Their vision, together with a mastery of black and white photography, and a unique style produced images that stand apart. Ansel Adams might have called it a "departure from reality."


Photography, the universal language

Diamond Head, Oahu, HI

        Now that phones have built-in cameras that are so easy to use it's become routine to take pictures of everything we like, at any time. This is a new phenomenon, a by product of advances in digital and computer technology.  Everyone is now a photographer, and the simple image software that comes with phones makes it easier than ever to create better photos. This was once an arcane specialty, requiring a familiarity with cameras, film, shutter speeds, darkrooms, and last but not least, an understanding of visual art. Basically, to be a photographer, you had to understand how cameras and film worked, but you also had to be a visual artist. Digital photography has changed all this, practically overnight. The mechanical and technological process of creating an image is now almost an afterthought. With the availability of phone cameras image making has become completely democratized. The implications are profound. What began, some 160 years ago, as a new way to produce a portrait or depict a landscape is now the universally accepted language by which we communicate and share information. It's the medium by which we tell one another who we are, what we're doing, what we like, where we are, and what we want. The new technology is also redefining all of this. Our very understanding of the world around us is now informed by manipulated images reflecting our own or adopted values. Photography used to be a way to document the world, and our lives. But as photographs increasingly become the way we relate to everything, and the way we stay connected, has this virtual universe enriched our world, or replaced it? 

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