Topic: Commentary (142 posts) Page 1 of 29

Legendary

My career and my art have been defined by a few of the lenses I've used to make my photographs over the years. We know that the camera and format play a foundational role but it is the lenses we use that make our pictures look the way they do. 

Early in my career, it was the Carl Zeiss 80 mm Planar for the Rollei SL66 that got the job done. I also learned a lot from using that lens as it was my first optic of very high quality.

It was sharp and good out to the corners and wonderful close-up. Next it was Zeiss again, with the 38 mm Biogon lens mounted to the Hasselblad Superwide (SWC) camera. A rectilinear lens; if held level, straight lines stayed straight. 

Virtually all my series works from the 70's, 80's and 90's were made with the SWC. Next was 8 x 10. I  bought the 240mm Nikkor f5.6 first but I found it to be soft so switched to the 300 Nikkor f5.6. 


This was a superb lens with a huge circle of covering power. (For those non- photographer readers or those that haven't worked with a view camera, the "covering power" refers to how large a circle of light the lens throws back to the film or sensor. A larger circle allows for more movements of the lens off axis for tilts and swings and other movements.) For twenty years this lens was my main "go to" and it wasn't until fairly late in my use of the format that I added a 210 Super Symmar by, you guessed, it Carl Zeiss. 

After switching to digital in about 2005, I have stayed with Nikon throughout. In there, of course, have been some remarkably poor lenses, usually less expensive budget glass, but a few standouts too. For instance, each time the company has upgraded the 70-200mm f2.8  zoom I have too and the current issue lens is exceptional. All my aerial work is with this lens.

The lens that is legendary for me and, I believe, perhaps under-acknowledged, is the Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8. 

Big, heavy and expensive, with a huge curved glass element in front that makes using filters difficult, the lens is very specialized as it only zooms 10 mm. I believe the wider the lens the greater the expertise needed. This lens is not for the faint of heart as things can go wrong very quickly.

Holding the 14-24mm level or knowing how much out of level you are is key. Sharp, and good at all apertures, this lens is extraordinary. It is rare for a lens this wide to be very good at its edges. This one is.

Seldom neutral or transparent, most photographs made with it bear its "signature", meaning they aren't a window to the world but a definite take on it.

Think about this: do you care about photographs that are interpretive: unusual, different and have their own special look, or would you rather look at photographs that depict reality and rely on content for their impact and meaning? This is an art versus documentary question and one perhaps for another post.

Ah lenses... you can understand photographers' passionate feelings about the lenses they use to make their pictures. I also use the Sony A7r MK III and have the 24-105mm f4 and love the range. This is a very good piece of glass. Often this can mean a "one lens" day for me. 

My newest? The 200-500mm f5.6 Nikkor. 

Probably designed more for birders and wildlife photographers, I will see soon how it does with landscape. This is such a specific lens, useable only under special circumstances.  I am looking forward to pushing it out to 400 and 500 mm in the Palouse shooting Wheat in Washington in late June.

Stay tuned.

Topics: Commentary,technical

Permalink | Posted April 28, 2019

Incidental Photographs

Incidental Photographs

My term for photographs made as single pictures, not referencing other works, made as "stand alones".  Sometimes made while making "series work" but often just coming on their own. I have made a boatload of them over the years.

We'll look at a few, chosen at random.

Let's start off with this one, made in 2009 while photographing in Italy for three months, not far from Bologna near a little town called Marradi:

Driving up the valley, stopping to look across to the opposite hillside, a farmer burning off dead branches from his chestnut trees, smoke filtering up to remind me of the smell of burning leaves in the fall as a kid growing up in southern Connecticut, the green intense and the sense of being in paradise inescapable, the only sound the crackling of the wood burning in the fire behind the tree. Caught in a timeless beauty that felt like it went on forever. Knowing even though many wonderful things have happened to me in my life that this one moment, this place was one that was special beyond all the others, just before heading to have lunch with my trainer's parents in Marradi, three Americans meeting in a small Italian hill town.

Or this one:

From the top of Cannon Mountain in NH

Ride the tramway to the top in the summer and hike up to the observation tower. Climb the stairs to the top and head for the very farthest right corner on the observation deck and wait for a moment when there are no people shaking the deck with their footsteps. Trip the shuter, the camera being on a tripod and jammed tight against the railing to hold it steady. 
I have probably made this same picture fifteen times over fifteen seperate trips to photograph.

And this:

Near Highlands, North Carolina 1988

While an artist-in-residence at the Applachian Envronmental Arts Center. Made in  8 x 10, a brown paper bag caught in the branches off the side of the road. Spent three weeks driving through this kind of country, listening to a new album by Joni Mitchell, probably a couple of months before the foliage came in. Dark and ominous sky, dirty looking hills in black and white, the 8 x 10 negative conveying vast amounts of information and showing an extraoridnary transparency to the air that we look through.

Or this:

In the early 90's, rural NH

Also in 8 x  10, playing with sharpenss through space, swinging the front of the view camera to prescribe a thin slice of sharpenss from the left tree trunk along the rope to the left side of the dock, to the sailfish in the water to the oppoite shore. Why? To own the picture, to suggest what the path through it is. To determine emphasis to things, to direct the picture, to de-emphasize parts less important.

Or this:

During our most amazing of winters in 2015 in New England with actual mountains of snow piled up in mall parking lots.

Photographs that sit outside of mainstream work. Found as gifts and realized as part of an overall practice that relies on a lifetime of seeing with an acute and trained awareness of a thing's potential to become a picture, to be art.

I used to carry around a box of 14 x 17 prints. I would show it to anyone that would look. I still have the box, battered and beat up. 

In it were black and white prints from all over. No "series" or precisely edited photographs, just images that were interesting, indicative, current, or on my   mind at the moment. Europe, American West, South, New England, Martha's Vineyard, Canada, Cambridge (where I lived), mostly 120mm but some 8 x 10 too, maybe  40 or 50 prints. The idea was that the imagery was informed by some overall aesthetic, a demonstration of interests, perhaps, as much as by what it showed. Trying to blur the distinction placed by viewers on place or subject and my intention to draw away from that.  

Incidental Photographs

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted April 19, 2019

Flawed Logic

Cynic: No point in photographing the landscape in Iceland. It's all been done before. Optimist: Maybe, but not by me. Love the challenge to bring something fresh to the table.

From Finnur's Trip, Iceland 2013

Cynic: Why would you assume interest in a whole series of the same thing, shot over and over, from different angles, distances and perspectives when even one is boring? Optimist: I can convey depth, sequence, tell a story or a narrative, take the viewer farther and share an emotion far better with work in series.

From Portland, ME 1996

From Arizona Castle Dome Museum,  2012

Cynic: It's all been done and to death. Photography is over as a fine art, at least landscape photography. No one wants to see pretty pictures of our planet. Art is about seeing things in new ways and there is no new way in photography anymore. Optimist: It is better to work to innovate, to approach the conventional with fresh eyes, to contribute to the overall canon of art in the world. The glass is half full, always.

From Iceland Landscape 2017

Okay, this game of the cynic versus the optimist can only go so far. As photography improves, as little knowledge is necessary to make superior pictures technically, as resolution increases, as there are more and more photographers, there is a seismic shift in the definition of the medium taking place. We are approaching the end of "craft" in our medium, the requirement to become masters of all aspects of the medium, from its history, to exposure, to optics, to developing and printing. Group shows of contemporary photography are increasingly weighted towards work that uses photography as part of its result but isn't beholden to "straight photography" at all. Blended in are a wide variety of alternative processes, including antique and older analog systems, imagery based in the use of software and even efforts to take the flat 2 dimensional paper print of tradition off the wall and into 3 dimensions. What did you expect? For the medium to stand still? This is a maturing of a revolution that started in the 90's when digital fist appeared. I find it exciting, although increasingly it puts me into the"old boy" category. It's what I am, after all. This makes my present day imagery irrelevant? This isn't really for me to decide as I will do what I do regardless, it just becomes an issue when I seek to get exposure for my work. Plus, I do have an extensive library of my own archivally processed and printed vintage works, for instance, that I have stored well, and that are filed and sorted for all to see.

From Bermuda Portfolio 1982

On the gallery page of the site, everything from the late 70's to about 2000 are shot on film and made in the darkroom by me.  Just email me to take a look.

Flawed logic? To interpret that because it's all been done, to not photograph because it's useless to do so? Watch out for the tendency to be influenced by what else is out there. We see something, we think how it either does or does not relate to our own sensibilities and then what: adapt to conform? I don't think so. I don't think a real artist would ever be capable of adaptation.We can only be true to ourselves in making art.  This cynical outlook on making art using photography? That seems like flawed logic to me. 

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted April 3, 2019

I've Been Asked

I've been asked by several readers if I would run through the equipment I've used over the years. Don't worry, the list is not long and I will try to pair the gear with examples as we go through it.

The first major purchase early in my career besides a couple of Nikons was the Rollei SL66 in 1971.

A great clunker of a 120mm format camera that made simply wonderful pictures

One of the camera's outstanding features was that you could tilt the lens. I had only one lens for it, the 80mm f2.8 Carl Zeiss Planar, just a plain killer of a lens. That was it. I still have the Rollei.

Next up

in 1978 or 1979 was my first Hasselblad SWC (Super Wide Camera), bought used. I've owned two of these, at different parts of my career. A revelation of a camera. It was remarkably compact with no mirror as it wasn't an slr. The camera was easy to hold in one hand. Potent, though, when used with skill. It took me a while to get good with it. It had a 38mm Zeiss Distagon lens that became legendary for its quality while being very sharp. I made many many series with the SWC (examples: Nantucket, Solothurn, Yountville, Hershey).

Solothurn CH 1982

I sold the first SWC in about 1984 in order to be able to afford an 8 x 10 camera.

I bought the Toyo Field 8 x 10, an impressive piece of engineering and design. I bought it on the theory that metal would be better than wood (the Deardorf) and the movements were far more precise. It was heavy but made so many crucial pictures of mine over the next 25 years as to be indispensable. 

Western MA, 8 x 10, about 1990.

By 1996 I could afford a new Hasselblad and had not been making series work for many years. I bought another SWC and made pictures that count with it right away:

Portland, ME 1997

In 2004 I made a photo trip in the summer to Cody Wyoming. This was the last time I worked in 8 x 10 and went with the Toyo and three lenses and a Nikon D70. This was an entry level digital Nikon in early digital days. It was inexpensive  and it looked like a real camera but I thought it was mostly junk. At maybe 6 mp(?) all you really could do with it was to make small prints.

Then began a series of Nikons as the technology improved. First the Nikon D300

 in 2007 or 2008, a small chip camera, as I started to invest in lenses and make pictures that counted (see Cabela's),

then a big switch to full frame with the Nikon D3, a 12 MP camera. That camera was a significant jump in quality as the files were excellent and capable of some subtly in tonalities and color rendition.

By this time, 2008 or 2009 I had switched to working full time digitally and was only printing past negatives as inkjet prints from scans. I also invested in more full frame compatible Nikon lenses, namely the 14-24mm f 2.8, the 24-70mm f2.8 and the 70-200mm f2.8 Nikons. Of course, this is what hooks people into system cameras as they've invested so much in lenses it is hard to switch manufacturers.

Next was the outlandishly expensive D3X ($8000!) at 24 mp. This was another really remarkable camera. High quality files that could be printed larger, and rock solid dependability with great battery life.  The D3x looked virtually identical to the D3 but was almost twice as expensive.

By this time I was making more aerials and the quality increased in importance  as there was a demand for bigger prints.

Next up, for just one year, was the Nikon D800E, a breakthrough design at 36 MP but launched too early as it had real issues, including inducing its own camera shake with the results being a large number of blurry images. I hated it, although I  was able, with care, to get really good files.

From Monsters made with the Nikon D810 in 2014.

Within a little over a year, Nikon announced the D810 and I bought it right away. It solved all the problems of the earlier camera and became one of my favorite cameras ever. Again, repeatability and dependability are huge to a working pro and this camera was rock solid and produced wonderful files.

Currently I am working with two cameras, the Nikon D850 and the Sony A7R Mk lll. The majority of files are made with the Nikon and so far all trips to photograph and aerials are made with it as well. The D850 checks all the requirements but it is relentlessly big and heavy. I think of the Sony as my "knock around" camera but I admit that my respect for it is growing. I like its low weight and bulk very much as the Nikon is just too much sometimes.

Nikon D850

Nikon D850

Sony A7r mk lll

If you've read this blog for a while you know it is usually not about the tools we use to make our pictures. But our cameras and lenses do affect our output, not only the look of our pictures but the capacity to make prints of high quality and  larger size. I hope this post has been informative and helpful. Questions or comments? email me here

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted February 22, 2019

The Mayhews

You ever listen to Car Talk on NPR? Tom and Ray Magliozzi the Tappet Brothers being very funny and outrageous, giving out car advice to callers? Tom died in 2014 but reruns continue. Used to be my garage, called Good News, back in the 80's. There's a puzzler every week on the show and Ray sometimes prefaces the week's puzzler by saying that it is "non-automotive". Well, although this is a photography blog, this week's post will be non-photographic.

Maybe this will buy me  back some of the readership I lost when I wrote a tech piece about a new lens a couple of weeks ago. 

I've been going to the island of Martha's Vineyard my whole life. My parents brought me here for the first time when I was less than one year old, in 1946. The island is now big time tourism, with growing numbers of summer renters,  seasonal residents and "wash-a-shores". But back then, the town where our Chilmark house is, had very few summer residents. Our family friends were locals like the Sewards, Fischers, Pooles, Flanders and Mayhews. Fishermen, farmers, real estate salesmen, post office workers. One of my dad's best friends was Ben Mayhew. Ben and Eileen Mayhew had five children: Jonathan, Peggy, Gregory, Skipper and Eileen, the oldest. As my parents didn't build their own house on the island until 1964, in those earlier years they rented most summers, always in Chilmark. So my growing up summers were defined by my times on the Vineyard and some of my playmates were Greg, Skipper and Peggy. Their mother Eileen was known as Big Eileen and was actually very tiny and their oldest daughter Eileen, who was known as Little Eileen, was actually very big. Big Eileen died in 2016 at 101. The service for her was held on the island and there were stories  about Eileen and Ben and the  kids growing up in a family where their dad went from being a sword and lobster fisherman to an elected representative for the island to the State House in Boston. Mayhews are buried at the  family plot in the Chilmark Cemetery at Able's Hill within spitting distance of where my parents are, and where I will be.

I dated Peggy Mayhew a few times in Denver where we were both going to school, she at Colorado Women's College and me at the University of Denver. Greg served in the Army during Vietnam and returned to find his father very sick. By this time Ben had been the state rep in Boston for a few years. When Ben died Greg served the remainder of his father's term. This was short lived as Greg was voted out in the next election so then took over where his dad had left off as a fisherman. For many years Greg served as caption on their fishing boat out of Menemsha, Skipper as one of the crew and Jonathan as a spotter pilot in the hunt for swordfish. 

As time wore on and the local fishing industry died out the Mayhews adapted by     fishing for other types of fish and Skipper became a clammer. Eventually Greg sold his boat for scrap. He died last year. In a metaphor for change the Mayhew house we called "the big house" on the hill overlooking Clam Cove in Chilmark was sold and now is being renovated, which these days almost always means a complete teardown. 

I played in that house as a kid, rode a rope swing in the barn with Skipper and Greg and watched on the Mayhew's living room TV as Neil Armstrong first stepped on the surface of the moon in 1969.

The Mayhew's Big House, now almost unrecognizable, serving as a symbol that nothing stays the same. I was on the island for a couple of days this past week and was struck by how much construction there was, how many cars were on the roads, how many restaurants were open in mid February. Big changes on these coastal islands. 

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted February 16, 2019