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Photography

 

There was a “dead” period where I didn’t even carry my camera. For awhile, I was taking tons of pictures of my growing child, but very few images of anything I wanted to display, to put my name on. I didn’t need my Nikkormat for that, and it was too heavy to schlep around, so I gave it to the local high school photo class.

 

Around 2006-07, I bought my daughter a compact digital camera, and for a few years, it was what I used to record our Kodak moments.

 

At the end of 2009, I had a reason to get out and take some photos that for a specific purpose. For a couple of years previous, my company had been commissioning a photographer to shoot local points of interest for a desk calendar that we then sent to our clients.

I know, that is all the world needs is another cheesy real estate agent calendar with a Hallmark Card landscape on it.

Fortunately, our marketing director had very good taste, and carefully chose both her photographers and the image used on the calendar.

 

But I didn’t think the 2010 calendar images lived up to the previous years, so I asked if I could use my own pics instead. Along with permission, I got a two week deadline to provide 13 images. There were only two small problems, I had nothing to offer, and I am not a prolific shooter-I normally don’t make 13 satisfactory images in a year.

 

But I did it.

I wanted to stay in the spirit of the “House” calendar, and I wanted it to be personal, so I decided to shoot East Bay landmarks that I cared about, or that I had found visually interesting. I carried that little camera everywhere, and because I had a goal, I shot more images that I had shot in years.

I narrowed it down to 13, and published this calendar. Doing so reignited my interest in photography, and I have been slowly crawling out of the mud ever since.

2010 calendar

I just read that MAD Magazine is going to cease publishing.

As a kid, MAD gave me permission to be irreverent, but more important, it allowed me to look behind the curtain, to question Authority, and to find the real Truth that underlied the  Ozzie and Harriet worldview that was being spoon fed to us in the 1950s . Nothing against O and H, only the world as the media, the advertisers, and other big shots presented it. I guess it was an Eisenhower thing (no offense to Ike either. After all, he warned us about the Military Industrial Complex).

On a personal level, it allowed me to not take myself seriously, and helped define my Bullshit Detector.

If you believe, as I do, that laughter is the best medicine, it was regular doses of MAD that kept us healthy.

MAD was the Old Testament for Rowan and Martin’s Laugh in and George Carlin, and I suspect that if you looked under the bed of a Saturday Night Live or Simpsons writer, you were just as likely to find a MAD as a Playboy.

 

If MAD was the Bible, then Groucho was the High Priest.

 

 

HAPPY FATHER’S DAY!

In the 1950s, my Father imported and sold Fiats, I have previously blogged about it here-

https://jimmyreina.wordpress.com/2014/08/22/fiatus-fiatus/

He sponsored a road racing version of their sports car, and one Sunday, he took my Brothers and me to watch a race.

The sports car was named the “Spyder”, we are sitting on the roof of one watching the race.

The “Abarth” was the racing version.

Here is another pic of the Spyder, decked out for my 1960 Grade School picnic-

 

THEN

My interest in photographs preceded my interest in photography. In the 1950s, my Father brought home a copy of a LOOK magazine book titled something like “A Year in Pictures”, and I kept this book on my nightstand for the longest time, continually leafing through it. To this day, I remember a photograph of a pair of Siamese Twins, joined at the top of their heads.                   This was engaging stuff, the power of photography to explain our world to us in a universal manner.

While I now understand the controversy surrounding it, when my favorite teacher loaned me her copy of ” Family of Man “, it seemed pretty remarkable to my 11 year old self.

I have an interest in things scientific, and am a problem solver, so I learned to appreciate both the magic and the “behind the scenes” processes I learned about  in images like “Helicopter”,  “Transformation of Energy”, and “Bullet Through Apple”.

Years later, while traveling in Europe, I bought a basic 35mm rangefinder camera that had no light meter, nor even any batteries. I learned to judge exposure according to the pictograms on the inside of the film box (Cloudy Bright, Open Shade), but didn’t think of myself as a photographer with a capital “P”, only as a tourist shooting snapshots.

When I returned to the states, everybody was doing something crafty-a couple of my buddies were in Art School studying “Media” A roommate had a darkroom, and photography as an activity utilizing mechanics and chemistry in order to express oneself started to make sense to me, so I dove in.

But I didn’t study Media.

Instead, I learned photography by reading everything I could get my hands on, and by looking at a lot of photographs. Photography as an Art Form didn’t really gain traction with me, but the life of the Photographer seemed pretty cool. The LIFE and LOOK crowd seemed to have good jobs, and what could be better than National Geographic? The photo mags ran articles about what special gear those folks carried on assignment, and occasionally, the special setups they used to get the shot. I am a technique guy, I loved those tools and tricks.

I was off and running.

I enrolled in a couple of Community College photo classes that were designed to stretch my creativity. My first couple of projects were flops-high on concept, but not in execution. I think most of my work was pretty mediocre, but two class assignments really stuck with me.

An Andreas Feininger image introduced me to a storytelling technique of using selective focus to make an image more dynamic. I used this to make an image that was made into a poster for the School’s Automotive Technology Department- it was a real photo assignment “commissioned” and accepted by a third party.

Another class assignment was to shoot three rolls of film, then print and display the five best images that came out of that 108 exposure shoot. I have seen variations on this exercise (shoot geometric shapes, shoot only one color for a week, etc.), and still think these exercises are quite valuable.This is a recent “geometric” version.

 

As can be expected, there were quite a few dogs in the batch of 108 (probably over 100), but a few were photographically interesting, and one “happy accident” double exposure was submitted to a Student Show, where it won first prize!

It is a special feeling to know that total strangers respond to your work (and I don’t mean “likes” on Instagram.

A talented graphic artist brought me into his circle, and I did some of the most creative work ever (my work, his creativity).

I did some product photography, and a few portraits, but didn’t really have the eye for it. I shot a couple of weddings, and think I did OK, but really didn’t have the stomach for it. I hung out with a high powered Rock Band, and that was fun, but they wound up with the girls, and at the end of the day, all I had was a bunch of negatives.

I even got a gig as the still photographer on a full length motion picture.

Little of this was creative, none of it was Arty. I seldom made anything out of thin air, and I am not a concept guy.

However, I was getting pretty good with recording what was in front of my camera- less as documentary, perhaps closer to Journalism, or what Walker Evans called “descriptive photography”. I am beginning to call it “observational photography”.

I enjoy people watching, and have always found myself in the company of “characters”. Although there is not often a lot of people in my photographs, I find the product of being Human to be the most interesting thing to point my camera at. I often went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and in the French Quarter street theater is a way of life. I practiced what came to be called “Street Photography”, but now those guys are formalizing a definition of that type of shooter (and taking the fun out of it), so I am moving away from the category, but my guiding principle is still

 

“….if you are standing on the sidewalk, and saw three Chickens, a Horse with a Purple tail, some bicyclists, and a Peacock approaching, you would have to think,

‘Damn, I need a picture of that’. “

I like to think I had some decent work back them, but we will never know, as all of my work was destroyed by the 1991 urban wildfire that consumed a large part of the Oakland and Berkeley Hills.

I still view photography in terms of the image that you capture, rather than something that is massaged in software. Although there is not often a lot of people in my photographs, I find the product of being Human to be the most interesting thing to point my camera at.

 

That was THEN, next I will talk about NOW.

 

 

 

 

WHAT DOES ALFRED HITCHCOCK HAVE TO DO WITH A REAL ESTATE AGENT IN BERKELEY?

BIRDS

At a client’s request I was visiting a property, and as I walked down the driveway, a bunch of Ravens circled me, squawking and screaming.  These critters have invaded our neighborhoods over the years, probably due to what appears to be an abundance of half-filled French Fry containers that litter the streets.

I have seen this mob behavior before, it seems to have been because one of their own is threatened, sometimes by a Squirrel or other neighbor. These guys were pretty aggressive with me, and getting louder, so since I couldn’t see a lockbox, I retreated.

As soon as I turned around, one of these hoodlums flew down and rammed into my head!

 

 

*

It was quite a blow, kind of like getting hit by a pillow in a pillow fight.

I retreated to the front porch to catch my breath, and had to think twice about going back out to find the Realtor lockbox. Two or three of them stood around laughing at me while the rest of the gang hung back over the driveway protecting whatever it was they were protecting.

They didn’t seem to mind me going to the lockbox, and by the time I performed my 30 minute due diligence, they were gone.

 

 

*This is my photograph, but it is not my image. It is a terrific shot done by a fellow BCC student named Norm.

 

PHOTOGRAPHY THEN AND NOW

Except for cell phone snaps, I have not been shooting at all during the past eight months.

Frankly, the cell phone snaps are intended for Instagram, which I don’t find engaging, so I hardly ever post to it.

However, I have continued to remain photographically engaged in all other ways, and now, I’m starting to get a sense of how photography has changed since I first became interested in it in the 1970s.

Or maybe I have changed.

Or maybe I haven’t, it’s hard to tell.

It is also possible I don’t have anything else to say. At least nothing I want to print and hang on a wall.

Part of this disorientation seems to be screen based photography, part it seems to be the

in current photographic trends.

LET’S GET PHYSICAL.

I enjoy digital photography, but have been disappointed with digital presentation. At first, coming from film and paper, digital seemed so liberating, but occasionally, when I had something printed, I realized the added value a finished print offered, something I could view in my own way.

Twice a month when I was in the Camera Club, we had opportunity to show work. One night was Projected Image Night, and as images came on the screen, there seemed to be minimal discussion, along with a tendency to keep moving. I think this tendency is a symptom of viewing (or even reading) on devices-we push buttons because we can.

Print Night, the alternate evening, was much more satisfying, we had to get involved. We had to assemble the portable “Gallery” walls, set up light stands for viewing, then hang the prints, oftentimes jostling for space, and seldom having enough of it. I believe there was significantly more engagement, and more discussion on print night. They even had to set a timer because the discussions kept going on,

and we would run out of time before we could discuss everybody’s work.

I wanted to learn more about printing, so I enrolled in a Berkeley Community College class which included print critiques as part of each class session, and also provided access to a very nice print lab. The Instructor had a thorough knowledge of photography, and photographic printing, and did a good job of managing the critiques. I greatly enjoyed viewing and discussing the work, it was very gratifying to walk right up to something that caught my attention and stick my nose in it.  And I loved the discussions.

Aside from seeing their iconic images, I think this form of viewing is what made the recent Walker Evans and Brassai exhibits at SF MOMA such rich experiences for me. A great deal of their work was printed no larger than 8×10, and close viewing was essential. I know this is a cell phone shot of a photograph, but you really had to get in there and study this in order to absorb it-at least I did.

Subsequent BCC classes were still about photography, but because that instructor approached it from an arty perspective, the sessions evolved into art classes where photography was part of a larger discussion of imagery. There were no critiques, and occasional assignment presentations were digitally projected. It was my sense that there was less group involvement while viewing the images, and once again, the “slideshow” moved pretty quickly.

It wasn’t for me.

In order to refine their eye, many photographers do look to the greater art world for education, but this doesn’t seem to work for me. I have to say that whatever (photographic) sensibilities I might possess were developed by looking at tens of thousands of photos over the years.

Because the customary method of viewing work in this class was digital projection, I decided to do a web site as a final class project. I had been thinking about one for quite a while, but frankly, I needed such a deadline in order to get it done.

Now maybe my work just isn’t that engaging, but when I hung many of these images as prints on the wall in the previous class, they generated conversation (sometimes quite spirited, sometimes critical), but as projected images, not so much. One thing I realized was the difficulty seeing details, which in many cases, brings out the texture that creates the story. Because it has big graphic shapes, this image had esthetic appeal, but no one could see that the crew members are all elderly Women.

However, once they get past the prettiness, everyone who has handled the actual print zooms in on the crew-this is the hook in this photograph they respond to.

This seems reinforced by the competitions that I entered-accepted entries had big strong elements that would be apparent on a screen-

After BCC, I joined a print based critique group, and had the same experience. The conversations were lively, and John Priola, the facilitator was very good at initiating thoughtful and intelligent dialog within the group. My first two print critiques were quite stimulating, but due to a schedule mixup, I was unable to bring in prints of my 123 Project

 

Since it is on my website, we rounded up a projector, and viewed it that way. The results were embarrassing-

“What is this, some kind of road trip?”

“I can’t tell what I am looking at!”

I think this

and this

came off as just roadside architecture, and neon.

Until I told them the nature of the number of prints it is composed of (35), and showed them the actual size of the Carquinez Bridge shot they were unimpressed, but then they were only impressed by the numbers, not the projected image.

 

 

 

But there is so much detail, along with deep perspective in this photo that the print gets some attention-people in the same room with it tend to like it.

I later printed, mounted, and exhibited this same series locally, and it was pretty well received- I even sold a few prints from it.

It is possible the series is too personal, and isn’t that interesting to the general public. I have an opportunity to bring prints to another critique session at SF Camerawork, and am considering using the 123 set.

We will see the response.

 

Until then, I’m

 

 

BRASSAI

We recently visited the Brassai exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and it opened my eyes to the breadth and depth of his work. Brassai is best known for his “Paris at Night” photos, but he was so much more than that. I read somewhere that he started out as a painter, but was inspired to take up photography by Andre’ Kertesz*, his contemporary in the Paris art scene of the 1920s. Kertesz seemed to have a knack for photographically noticing an element of everyday life that “would make a good picture”, and then capturing it-two very distinct activities.

Brassai also had this talent –

To me, this one seems particularly “Kertesz like”

 

Many of Brassai’s photos were of  tradespeople just doing their job

 

The photo adjacent to this one had this guy and his crew eating their lunch. I hope they had Hand Sanitizer with them.

I should note that the museum staff gave me permission to take pics of these pics with my phone.

Apparently, Brassai photographed many society functions, but he is most famous for his pics of the “other” Paris, the one that exists after dark. As depicted, this is the world of night clubs and bars, prostitutes and criminals, and for a photographer, it also was a world of visually interesting characters and situations that made good pictures.

Monastic Brothel?

 

Considering the speed of photographic emulsions at the time, this atmosphere must have presented constant lighting challenges, and aside from the necessary tripod, the cameras, glass plates and carriers must have required a fair amount of muscle to lug around.

 

These two were my favorites

 

 

 

 

“Brassai” is running through February 17th.  If you were raised on traditional photography, and have a chance to visit San Francisco between now and then, put this show on your list.

 

I’m going back for a second look.

 

 

 

 

 

*Who wasn’t inspired by Kertesz?