West Coast Troublemakers, or the Naked Girl with the Big Clock

Ten or fifteen years ago, I read a really good biography of the photographer Ansel Adams. I’ve recommended it often, but somehow, I couldn’t find it on my shelves. A bit of curiosity and research led me to the author, Mary Street Alinder and her new book about Adams and his West Coast photography buddies and co-conspirators including Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Brett Weston (Edward’s son), Consuelo Kanaga, Dorothea Lange, and other notables. Sometimes formally, sometimes less so, they were collectively members of a group bound to change American photography. They called themselves Group f.64, which is both among the smallest lens apertures generally available (for extreme depth of field and its resulting sharp images) and the title of Ms. Alinder’s latest book.

UnknownWhen the photographers in Group f.64 started out, they found themselves in what, today, seems to be an unlikely situation. Photographers on the east coast followed a mostly European tradition anchored in painting. On the West Coast, the fad was pictorialism in which photographs were not considered viable unless they were altered to look like other forms of art. For example, the pictorial photographers often hand-colored their work, used soft focus lenses, and created faux brushstrokes during the photographic development process. Pictorialism found some rather odd expressions: one very popular West Coast photographer named William Mortensen was, according to Alinder, “the very vocal champion of the Pictorialists. He applied his expertise in set design and the latest in Hollywood makeup artistry: elaborately costumed historical portraits and tableaux. He staged each picture’s setting, building a fictional alternative universe, often of a teasing salaciousness or portraying scenes of horror, his models transformed into monsters with heavy makeup.” Mortensen was among America’s most famous photographers and easily photography’s most prolific teacher. In a series of well-described articles in Camera Craft magazine, he sparred with Ansel Adams who took the position of photography as pure art form that required none of the nonsense that Mortensen promoted.

From 1932—just a few years before those articles—the f.64 wrote a manifesto to explain its unique and somewhat radical approach to pure photography as an emerging art form. “Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technic [technique], composition or idea derivative of any other art-form.”

What did that mean? For Edward Weston, in 1927, pure photography involved making perfect images of a single pepper or a shell. What’s perfect? Have a look.

weston - shell

Also from 1927, Ansel Adams provides this example:


Time has not been kind to Mr. Mortensen, whose partial portfolio can be found on an Eastman House website:


Mostly, this is the story of perhaps a dozen fully engaged West Coast photographers whose clear vision redefined American fine art and serious amateur photography. In an attempt to gain serious recognition in New York City galleries—remember, the west coast was rather distant from the east in the 1930s—they solicited a largely unimpressed Alfred Steiglitz in what they believed to be photography’s future. You know Stieglitz’s extraordinary work:


In time, and with considerable frustration, the West Coast photographers found their way into the mainstream. The level of detail provided by Ms. Alinder may overwhelm casual readers, but it’s all worth reading to better understand the large aesthetic shift that occurred in what amounts to about twenty years, maybe thirty.

Where does the story lead? Clearly, Mr. Mortensen’s fascinations have faded from public interest, but the work of Ansel Adams continues to demonstrate the power of photography for the world to see (and for a great many amateur photographers to emulate). The shift from manufactured to realistic beauty is nicely expressed by this famous image by Imogen Cunningham:


I believe that the world is a better place because these photographers taught themselves to see, and then encouraged us to do the same. Dorothea Lange’s well-known work includes images of migrant workers, but I think I like this one best:


Or maybe this one. Ms. Lange gets out, grabs the camera, finds the angle, and creates a memorable self-portrait.


Time for me to re-read the Ansel biography, I think. Good news—the same publisher (Bloomsbury) has reissued the book with some new material and additional insights. I can’t wait.






Beyond the Decisive Moment

Cartier-BressonHenri Cartier-Bresson was one of the great photographers of the 20th century. Best known as a prolific street photographer (for whom color was a commercial concession, not an aesthetic option), HCB’s life story is no less compelling than his lifetime of images. His career and personal commitments were well-described last year at an extensive exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Happily, the exhibition has been packaged as a coffee table book by Clément Chéroux and published by Thames & Hudson. It’s expensive ($75) and it’s worth the money, in part because Mr. Chéroux curated the 2014 exhibition.

Students of photography associated HCB with “the decisive moment. Just as Martin Luther King (okay, “MLK”)’s life work far exceeds the brief period of his “I Have a Dream” speech, Cartier-Bresson’s infatuation with the precise instant when a photograph ought to be made is only part of an expansive range of artistic and journalist expression.

Born in 1908, Cartier-Bresson grew up in a comfortable Parisian household; the family owned a large cotton and thread manufacturing company. 1908 was also the year that, in England, Robert Baden-Powell published “Scouting for Boys” to support his new progressive approach to education known as the Boy Scouts. The organization’s combination of an active life for boys, with ample freedom and discipline, was a good match. At age 14, as a Scout, Henri began to experiment with photography, but only as  hobby. The family’s plan for Henri was all business—he was sent to the best schools so he could, sometime, lead the large family business. Of course, things didn’t work out as planned. Instead, with the blessings of his family, he studied art. Mostly cubism. Which he found “boring” because it was “too systematic.” He preferred the more expansive world view offered by surrealism. In October, 1930, by now free from both his formal education and military service, Cartier-Bresson followed Europeans curious about “the Dark Continent.” He spent nearly a year in Cote D’Ivoire, Cameroon, the French Sudan, Togo, and along the Niger River, he photographed children on the streets and people at work—avoiding the exotic and tribal imagery, just focusing on the day-to-day. Over the next few years, his casual interest in travel photography became a passion, then, a career. He traveled to, and photographed street activities in, Paris, Marseilles, Milan, Florence, Sienna, Trieste, Madrid, various parts of Mexico, and more.

Along the way, he learned by copying the styles of Eugene Atget (streets of Paris, store windows); European photographers intrigued by the geometry of city life (mostly); the golden section that is key to classic composition; various less-than-compressible surrealistic sketches and distortions. In time, he worked out his own style. Before he turned 30, he had created enough distinctive images to display his work in a successful exhibition.

The story becomes more interesting as HCB moves from travel photography and street work (often one and the same) to work with a more specific purpose: often, related to his attachment to the ideals of Communism. Stories of the Spanish Civil War, Mussolini, and the utter transformation of Europe are among the best stories—supported by some of the best images—in this book. He becomes concerned about poverty and tells his visual stories so they will provoke attention. He attends to the facial expression and behavior of crowds, often ignoring (and needing to caption) just what they are looking at. He documents free time—a relatively new idea in 1938 France, at least for the working class—and this is probably my favorite selection of his work. For example, a Sunday on the banks of the Seine from that year:


In truth, what I love about this book is the arc of the creative story. It begins with a smart teenager who decides he likes art and photography better than college and business, who grows up quickly as he travels and makes stunning pictures. Then, he finds his political and social conscience, and plays a very active role, using his photography as a very effective tool. Then, he realizes that his political affiliations will become a career problem, so he co-founds Magnum, a journalistic photo agency with Robert Capa and several other extraordinary photojournalists, and becomes one of LIFE magazine’s active contributors. Then, he explores topics that interest him: the growing connection between people and machines (a project for the IBM of the 1960s, for example), icons of power (very powerful—and decidedly odd—image of a giant Lenin in front of the Winter Palace in Leningrad as a man and his small child stroll in the foreground), and the ways that crowds behave. And then, in this 60s, he begins to slow down, to take images that are more focused on the feeling than the moment. And he begins to draw, picking up on something he loved to do as a child. He visits art museums, and spends hours sketching great works. He takes pictures of the family with his legendary Leicas. It’s a lovely life story, wonderfully punctuated by his pencil on paper self portraits from 1987 and 1992. One of the better free bios on the web is here. And there are a lot of smaller books filled with specific HCB projects that you can find on Goodreads, along with the compendium Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, The Image and His World, also from Thames & Hudson.

Henri-Cartier Bresson was born in August, 1908 and died in August, 2004—he lived, and documented, the better part of a century. And nobody did it better.

On the left, a picture of an American woman in 1947. On the right, “Giant Effigy of Lenin” from 1973.




Grandpa, what’s a camera?

Infographic-1920-1200-ver-2-0-1024x640This infographic comes from a website called Lensvid, which is filled with interesting photographic stories, inspiration, reviews and more.

The site attempts to explain what happened, but their editors as as mystified as I am. Clearly, smart phones are having an impact— why spend the money and tote around a separate smart box when the phone contains a perfectly fine snapshot camera.

But there are hobbyists, amateurs, professionals—and it seems unlikely that shipments dropped by as much as 40 percent in a single year. Unless it was a tipping point. The graph on the top left certainly illustrates a multi-year drop. But why haven’t lenses dropped by a similar percentage? Maybe because the sale of lenses wasn’t so hot in the first place—and once an amateur buys into, say, the Canon system with a digital SLR, they tend to keep their lenses when they buy the new camera body from the same manufacturer.

No surprise that sales of compact cameras are dropping so quickly—a 60 percent drop since 2010—because those the cameras that are most effectively replaced by the cameras in smart phones.

Isn’t it odd: we are taking more pictures than ever before, and yet, the camera business is falling apart. Reminds me of a recent post on LinkedIn by my friend Paul. It appears below, and I can’t quite get it out of my mind.







Next Spring, Near Paris

Start saving your money. Next May, go to Paris. Leave early on the morning–there’s an 820AM from Paris’s Saint-Lazare Station to Vernon, and then, there’s the taxi. The train arrives at 9:05AM at Vernon, and the cab will get you to the front entrance of Monet’s home and gardens by about 9:15AM. You want to arrive early, perhaps catch the mist rising from the water garden, perhaps take a few pictures or just gaze before the crowds populate every view. (Get there earlier, if you can; it’s always best to arrive first-in-line here.)


Summer is ending. There is autumn color: the purples and luminous yellows, the garish reds and the beginnings of orange trees reflected in the water. But there is nothing like spring.

In 1883, Claude Monet settled in Giverny, a village fifty miles outside paris. He rented a house with an orchard, the future Clos Normand, the flower garden at the front of the house that broke with the traditional idea of a pleasure garden.

9781419709609So begins the tale, told mostly in large, vivacious images, of Claude Monet’s extraordinary gardens (and home), told with love and with style through Jean-Pierre Gilson’s photographs, with text by Dominique Lobstein. Published by Abrams–one of the best in the world at this type of book, the visual tour begins, as it should , in the purple haze and tangled wisteria branches hanging over the famous Japanese bridge. The photograph is subdued; there are no bright colors yet. On the next two-page spread, there are brightly–colored bushes and their quiet reflections, house peeking out of the background behind some trees. Flip to the next of these several two-page spreads and it’s a riot of roses, glowing in the sun, red, pink, nearly white, braced by green leaves so dark and sometimes so nearly translucent, bold as can be. The text begins.

And on the next spread, so does spring. After the prelude, spring commences with a field of pink tulips, clean green fences and stair rails, dark green-blue leaves, and the stunning-but-simple house with its own pink facade and blue-green shutters. The effect is stunning, as if in a painting–and here, that’s precisely the effect that the master painter intended. To be at Giverny is to live inside a Monet painting, at least for a morning.

It’s not all cluttered with noisy flowers and oh-so-subtle impressionist gardening. “Monet wanted a garden that could ‘breathe’ with flowers, bushes and an open vista…” so he removed the many trees from the old orchard, and replaced them with Japanese cherry trees that yield, at least for a brief time in the spring, lighter-than-air blossoms, punctuated, here and there, as in any number of his paintings, with spots of bright color; here, red and purple tulips.

I wish I knew the name of every flower (and I wish the author’s captions included this information!). The phenomenal two-page spread showing yellow towers of flowers two stories high, dappled with pink-and-purple irises, golden yellow somethings (frustrated…), and it’s followed by several more. (I want to it to be spring today, and I want to go to Giverny tomorrow.)

And then, when your head is beginning to explode because Monet was such a genius, there’s a pair of small green rowboats, a field of happy daffodils, and in the distance, the Japanese bridge that he painted so often. Here, with a less exhausting spectrum, it’s possible to rest and reflect, and observe. The yellowy green of the locust leaves in contrast with the deep green of the background trees–with just a hint of small violet flowers to set the counterpoint.

The flighty, wavy petals of mauve tulips surprise me every time I see them. Here, they’re pictured with the famous lily pad pond in the fuzzy distance, and the sharp, sun-dappled orange wallflowers in the foreground. Another two-page spread, one of my favorite two-page spreads in the book.

Just checking–I’m not even half way through the book. Some surreal lily pad images–two look as though they were made for a science fiction film, but they are real–and then, with a page turn, there are paths of dry ochre leaves on the ground, paths with strong color of fall, not spring. The quiet beauty of barren trees and cool skies, the yellowing willow and golden hour light, it’s bittersweet. Moreso because the last set of images show the house with shutters now closed tight.

But then, we get to go inside. A row of old copper pans artfully hung in front of a blue-and-turquoise tiled wall with cabinets. A yellow dining room whose walls are filled with Japanese prints (Monet collected them, and they are a highlight of every Giverny tour, but few people spend the time to look at them as closely as the artist once did). It’s a classy old country home, less formal than most. And then, there’s a small staircase leading down to a room with Persian carpets on the floor and a whole lot of miscellaneous Monet paintings almost haphazardly scattered on the walls. It’s his studio.

The book closes with snow. Which means spring is coming again. Soon.

Lens in One Hand, Camera Phone in the Other

Earlier this week, Sony introduced a very different way to think about your cell phone as a portable camera. The DSC-QX100 is the kind of innovative product that engineers love, and marketers don’t love because it is, well, kind of hard to explain, understand, and justify in terms that makes sense to consumers.

Basically, Sony’s engineers have, quite reasonably, identified the tiny lens as the weakest part of the idea of an in-camera phone. The phone must be small, and the lens wants to be as large as possible (to allow more light to reach the sensor, allowing better image quality and greater control over depth-of-field, and more). Sony’s solution: a full-size lens that works with any smartphone.

“Works with” is the key phrase here. You can physically connect the lens with the phone so that the whole rig resembles a traditional compact camera, as below.


Here, the phone’s screen becomes the camera’s viewfinder–essentially, this is the way any camera phone works, except here, there is a full-sized Zeiss lens attached. Again, I’m choosing words carefully. The lens is attached, but not connected to the camera in the traditional way. The sensor is inside the lens, and so is the memory card. The camera is used ONLY as a viewfinder.

And that introduces an interesting variation on the theme. The phone can be held in one hand, and the lens in the other.


In fact, there are two different models. The better one, the QX-100, contains a healthy 20 megapixel 1-inch sensor, a fast f/1.8 lens, and costs about $500. The lesser one, the QX-10, contains a lesser 2/3 of an inch sensor and offers an ordinary lens, less well-suited to low-light, and costs half as much.

How does the signal make its way from the lens to the phone? NFC if the phone offers that type of (newer) connectivity. If not NFC, then Wi-Fi (thank goodness it’s not Bluetooth).

How’s the image quality? Think in terms of the image quality that you could buy for about $600 in a compact digital camera, and that’s the QX-100. For the lesser lens/camera (or whatever these contraptions are called), think in terms of what you could buy at Best Buy for two or three hundred dollars.

So now that we both understand how these new devices work, the obvious question re-enters the room. Is this a good idea? Basically, you’re buying a lens with a built-in sensor and a slot for a memory card, but no way to actually see what you’re shooting unless you connect the thing to a smartphone. Seems kinda goofy to me, but under some circumstances, for the right people who, for reasons that are still unclear, cannot, will not or should not purchase a traditional compact digital camera.

How the heck did the marketing people get talked into this one?

Shadow Catcher

angelineThe woman in the photograph was a poor soul, without friends, the subject of ridicule among Seattle schoolchildren. She lived in a hovel. When the growing city of Seattle cleared its native population, she remained where she was, and the city grew up around her. Kick-is-om-lo was her name, but that was difficult to pronounce, so the local folk called her Princess Angeline. In 1896, Kick-is-om-lo was paid one dollar to pose for this picture–the equivalent of what she was able to earn in a whole week–by a struggling young photographer named Edward Curtis. To say this would be the first of many such images would be a substantial understatement.

Within a short time, Mr. Curtis’s photography practice was beginning to thrive, mostly in connection with his nature photographs on nearby mountains (he was, in his way, a predecessor of Ansel Adams, but that’s not why he became famous). Instead, he began to photograph the native people who lived within traveling distance of his home. His fledgling studio became a place to buy these extraordinary portraits, these scenes of natives who were both nearby and exotic, these souls who some perceived as savages and others as victims. They were dying. The number of natives was rapidly declining. Their languages were dying out. Soon, the people who spoke those languages would be gone, too.

Curtis found opportunities to photograph native people in their own habitats. He used a camera and an early sound recorder, and he began to build a collection. Some individuals trusted him, many did not. He was “deeply affected” by a Sun Dance that lasted five days. Neglecting his family, and in time, his Seattle photography business, he followed the path that many creative professionals have since followed. He began an obsessive effort to photograph, many, and then, most of the remaining native communities. His trips began to cover areas far from home. He would stay away for a year or more. In time, he found kindred spirits, including, for a long while, former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, who, like Curtis, enjoyed a deep appreciation of America’s natural and, to a somewhat lesser extent, native history. They became friends; Curtis made formal portraits of T.R.’s children and hung around the family estate at Sagamore Hill for a good while.

To continue, and to fulfill his creative vision, Curtis required far greater resources than his local photography business would ever provide. He required an investor at a time when the philanthropic community was just beginning to take shape. He planned to:

make a complete publication, showing pictures and including text of every phase of Indian life of all tribes yet in primitive condition, taking up the type, male and female, child and adult, their home structure, their environment, their handicraft, games, ceremonies, etc…

His bodacious plan: an expensive, limited edition twenty volume set containing “fifteen hundred full-page plates”

He managed to get himself into the office of J.P. Morgan, who reviewed the proposal ($15,000 per year for 5 years to cover all expenses), told wealthy banker that he had already spent over $25,000 on the project, that he was completely out of money.

Morgan said no. Actually, what Morgan said was, “I will be unable to help you.”

But Curtis didn’t take no for an answer. Instead, Curtis reached into his portfolio and began to cover Morgan’s desk with stunning photographs of natives, the likes of which Morgan had never seen: the salmon people of Puget Sound, the picture of Chief Joseph that Teddy (sorry… the President) loved so very much… And, bless his soul, Curtis left Morgan’s office with the commitment he needed.

But that’s just the start of an even wilder adventure that eventually finds Curtis producing one of the world’s first documentaries, and, eventually, finishing the whole project, destitute, so long after this intended deadline that, well, nobody cared about the books, Edward Curtis, or natives anymore (the Depression was an important reason why). The books, the original photographs, the obsessive life, all seemed to be for naught–until they were rediscovered decades later.

Now, you can see these pictures simply by clicking here. The link takes you to the Library of Congress collection of Edward Curtis’s work. Mr. Curtis overcame all sorts of stunning setbacks, but he did what he promised to do. And, thanks to him, we can at least begin to understand a culture that our people destroyed not so very long ago.

The one caution: nearly all of these images are very, very serious. Critics point out that Curtis’s vision of the stoic native presents an extremely limited, and so, distorted view, of the real lives of the people who made America.

The book is called Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. It was written by Timothy Egan. The book was given to me as a gift. You should do the same for yourself, and for every creative soul in your life. It is a remarkable story, beautifully told, and of course, illustrated with the work of a master photographer.

One of the best ways to see the scope of Edward Curtis's work is to simply search his name on Google, and then look at the Images view. That's what I did to capture this sampling of his photographs.

One of the best ways to see the scope of Edward Curtis’s work is to simply search his name on Google, and then look at the Images view. That’s what I did to capture this sampling of his photographs.

Gigapixel Images (Updated)

Consider this: your new-ish digital camera shoots images containing roughly 10 megapixels. That’s old news. All of the cool people are shooting images with 100 times as much resolution. Images with 1,000 megapixels!

Of course, these images are huge. Too large to print. But not too large to view on the web it’s difficult to take in the stunning clarity of the whole image, but it is fun to pick any part of the gigantic image and appreciate the clarity.

There are digital gigapixel panoramas, and digital gigapixel macro (close-up) images. But before you even consider making one yourself, you need to develop a plan and a process. think

in terms of shooting a series of panoramic images where the top, left, bottom and right sides must be perfected aligned with the image above, below and to each side. It can be done, but most tripod heads are not designed with this precision requirement. To do the job in the best possible way, take a look at the GigaPan EPIC Pro, a programmable mount.

Good video tutorials here.

If you’re interested in learning more, one very good source is the spring 2012 issue of a terrific new international photography magazine called c’t Digital Photography. Click here for access for past issues.

Here’s the world’s largest indoor image. Click to see the image the 360 cities site, where you can explore the Strahov Library in astonishing detail.

UPDATE: A team at Duke University posted a letter to Nature magazine. In a story published by DPReview, a theoretical design exists for a 960 megapixel camera that’s small enough to be used in the field. As they’ve imagined the new AWARE-2 camera, their work led to a design that arranges a series of cameras in a hemispherical arrangement, pointing at a single, spherical lens that the team have dubbed the ‘gigagon.’ The use of a single lens avoids the cost and complexity of having specialist optics on each sub-camera, while the curved design scales more easily than a flat array of cameras. The team believes this approach would continue to work for up to 50GP cameras.

From DPReview: “A diagram showing the hemispherical arrangement of the sub-cameras, and their relationship to the ‘Gigagon’ main lens (top right).”


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