Thursday, November 29, 2012

Clauss Family Portraits

If you’re a follower of this blog or of my work in general, it’s evident that I don’t typically photograph people.  On occasion, you may see an image or two of a human being here or on my Flickr stream, but it falls into one of a few different categories:  (1) my wife, my muse; (2) street photography; (3) travel photography; (4) project-related photography and (5) work shoots (of which you won’t find on my personal photography sites).   Outside of those instances, family portraits, senior pictures, wedding/engagement pictures and child portraits have never been featured.  I consider myself a fine art photographer with a focus on still life, inanimate objects, architecture, decay, project-based photography and generally subjects that don’t require human interaction.  Yes, individuals are unique and fascinating (in most cases); however, it’s not what interests me when I’m behind the lens.  

I’ve begun to establish myself photographically over the last four years and while I’m happy with this fact, it brings about many requests from friends and family members.  It’s been my experience that the general public unknowingly thinks of photographers as having one specific purpose – portraiture work.  If I speak to someone outside of the photography or art world and I tell them that I’m into photography, they usually ask if I take senior pictures, family pictures, etc.  For some reason, that’s what’s been ingrained in their memories when someone says photography.  Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Stieglitz, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, etc. are never thought of.  Perhaps it’s because our (America’s) lack of focus on art education; I’m not sure, but that’s a debate for another blogpost.  Regardless, my photography has automatically been associated with the aforementioned styles.  Most of the time I politely decline; other times, I have agreed, but for one reason or another, participants change their mind about having the portraits.  Well, a few weeks ago I was asked by good friends if I would be willing to take family portraits.  Normally, this wouldn’t have been a complicated request, but this shoot would include their newest family member - their two month old son.  I thought about it for awhile and I decided that I would go ahead and help them out.  

If I was going to break out of my comfort zone, I wanted to do it my own way.  I immediately asked if they would mind if I shot black and white and instant film in addition to digital.  They didn’t mind, so I began brainstorming.  I checked out some of the portrait photographers in the area to see what type of work my new clients might be expecting or hoping for.  I developed a creative shot list and started thinking about different locations to use.  We initially set the shoot for a weekend day during the week of Oct. 21, but the weather forecast was not being kind to us.  With temperatures in the mid 70s during the week, I was able to accommodate a shoot on the evening of Oct. 25 with the option of a follow-up shoot on Oct. 28.  I asked them to meet me at Menke Park in Troy at 5:30 p.m.  I arrived early to scope out locations, lighting, leaves, etc.  Once they arrived, I was ready to get to work.   I knew we had very little time to work with the light changing every minute, but little did I know I was in for an even bigger surprise.

The moment baby Logan was taken out of the car, my carefully planned shot list went out the window.  Having a two month old on a photography set is like playing roulette.  He was tired, cranky, happy, crying, content and hungry, but never the emotion you were hoping for at a specific time.  I realized that my Hasselblad would have to stay in the bag and I was going to focus on getting what I could with my digital camera and my Polaroid SX-70.  I shot for a little over an hour, using the remaining light and providing a small amount of direction.  I decided it was best to let them naturally interact with each other and just shoot.  This is the exact opposite of how I normally approach my photography.  I take a great deal of time to set up a shot, use one to two exposures and then move on.  Moments with family and children sometimes happen so quickly that I found myself firing away.  I don’t prefer this type of shooting, but it served its purpose for this job.  Afterwards, I immediately went home to look at the images.  I was surprisingly happy with the shots, but I pushed for one additional shoot with the hopes of using some different techniques and cameras.

The second shoot was scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 28 at Charleston Falls around 12:30.  It was chilly and windy, but I was hopeful that the overcast day would provide nice lighting and I could experiment a little more than I did the prior shoot.  I found some great locations and I was upbeat about the possibility of Logan being in a better mood for this shoot.  That, unfortunately, didn’t happen.  He was crying more than the previous shoot and the colder air didn’t help him or his parents.  We shot at about half the locations I had planned to and the Hasselblad stayed in the bag for a second consecutive time.  I got a nice mixture of usable shots that complimented the images from the other shoot.  

While it didn’t go exactly as I planned, I adapted to the situation, I enjoyed the nice change of pace in subject matter and I delivered images that I was satisfied with.  I hope that they enjoy and cherish them as much as I enjoyed shooting them.  I wouldn’t mind doing a shoot like this again, but I would prefer to have more control over the situation so that I could shoot more conducive to my style and output.  As they found out, regardless of the true style or nature of the photographer, it never hurts to ask.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Darkroom Work Begins!

One of my 2012 photo resolutions was to develop and print my own negatives.  As of September 29, I officially began my journey down the rabbit hole that is the darkroom.  A great photographer friend of mine, Mat Marrash, was my instructor for a two day workshop.  Mat is an amazingly talented analog photographer that specializes in 8x10 large format and alternative process photography.  He’s the co-host of the Film Photography Podcast, completed not one, but two 8x10 one-a-day projects, has dabbled into wet plate and carbon printing, and has created an astounding body of work with his barbershop series.  If you haven’t checked out his site, do so here.

In addition to Mat’s photography, he has a wealth of knowledge in regards to traditional darkroom work and photographic chemistry and he offers to share that knowledge through classes and one-on-one workshops.  Since I wanted to learn the basics of film development, but spend more time on the printing process, I decided to contact him regarding a one-on-one workshop.  He enthusiastically created a two day workshop agenda spread over the course of two weekends.  So, on September 29, I made a trip up to Findlay, Ohio and spent four hours in the darkroom learning from one of the youngest and talented working photographers today. 

Mat’s enthusiasm for photography and the darkroom is contagious, which makes him a great teacher.  We covered the basics of developing tanks, film reels and loading film for development.  We quickly moved onto basic darkroom chemicals and actually developed the two rolls of 120 that I shot for “homework.”  While waiting for the negatives to dry, we took a quick trip to see Leslie at Imagine That! After blowing an hour or so geeking out about cameras and film, we headed back to get working on the negatives.  We cut and sleeved the negs, loaded them into a contact printer and printed contact sheets.  We were now getting to the part of the process that I was really excited about - creating a silver gelatin print from a negative that I exposed and developed by my own hand.  Even though the final product is the same (only in the sense of the word), scanning a negative and printing digitally is nothing compared to exposing a negative with an enlarger onto photographic paper and then watching the image appear before your eyes.  It’s absolutely magical.

Camera:  Hasselblad 500 c/m
Lens:  150mm
Film:  Kodak Tri-X 400

After evaluating the contact sheets, we chose three images to create working prints from.  We used 8x10 Oriental RC paper and went about the enlarging process.  The output ended at a total of five prints.  Mat taught me the basics of dodging and burning and we used that short lesson to make a few adjustments.  I can’t tell you how exciting it was to see the image emerge after a short time in the developer.  That feeling is taken to a whole new level after the print has been fixed, washed and dried and you’re holding it in your hands in daylight.  To know that what you’re holding was hand-made and you had control of the entire process from exposure to finished product, is a great part of photography that is generally missed from the today’s typical photography work flow.

The second session was more of the same, but with much more time spent on final prints.  I shot two more rolls of 120 for “homework” and then I attempted to load the film for the first time on the reels in the darkroom.  It took a little while, but with a little help, I was finally able to develop the film.  A little more practice on a dummy roll at home and I’ll have this process down in no time.  After developing and waiting for the negatives to dry, we went through the working print process again.  We made contact sheets, decided on two images and made some working prints.  After evaluating those, it was time to enlarge them and make final prints on 16x20 fiber based paper. 

"Wounded Wood"
Camera:  Hasselblad 500 c/m
Lens:  150mm
Film:  Kodak Tri-X 400

Last time, I spent the majority of my time souping the prints in the chemistry as I watched Mat operate the enlarger.  For these prints, running the enlarger was my job, so that I was comfortable with the entire process from enlarging to developing the test and final prints.  I’ve already mentioned that Mat is a great teacher, but I can honestly say that I walked away from the two session workshop confident in my abilities to walk into another darkroom and start hand producing my work.   

Watching these enlargements develop before my eyes was more exciting than the first session.  I was staring at a large print that may be hanging in an exhibit or competition and it’s something that I made with my own two hands.  The fiber based paper gives the print an entirely different feel and even though it’s a bit harder to work with (due to curling and longer development time), the finished product is more archival than RC and it just has a unique hand-made feel to it.  After going through an archival washing process, we toned the images with selenium toner.  This provided additional archival stability to the image as well as adding a little bit of punch to the final print (in terms of tonality). 

Camera:  Hasselblad 500 c/m
Lens:  150mm
Film:  Kodak Tri-X 400

Of the final two prints, I definitely have a favorite.  I can’t stop admiring the beauty of the silver gelatin and I know that I’ll never tire of producing them.  I want to send another thank you to Mat Marrash for giving up two weekend days to help me out in the darkroom.  Mat’s a brilliant photographer and teacher and is very willing to pass along his knowledge and help others develop their photographic skills to achieve their photographic dreams.  Besides that, Mat’s also a good guy that I consider a friend.  I’m glad I decided to make the initial trip to the FPP Midwest Meetup for his first gallery show.  If you’re interested in learning more about developing, printing, alternative processes or large format photography, Mat Marrash is your guy.  I’ll be getting back into the darkroom soon, so I’ll be posting more work on this blog in the near future.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Traveling and Photography - A Realization

While this blog has primarily been dedicated to photography (techniques, meet-ups, industry news, practicing artists/past legends, shoot reviews, etc.), it’s also served as a spot for me to reflect on my travels.  To me, traveling and photography go hand in hand.  It’s been ingrained in us since we were children that one of the most natural things to do while on vacation is to take pictures.  It serves as a reminder of where we were and what we did with our friends and family as we travel through life. 

After having hung up my Kodak Star 110 camera as a child and not touching a camera for years, I developed a new found love for photography and the photographic image in 2008.  This was brought about by my first trip to New York City and my desire to capture elements of this iconic city on camera.  But not just the standard “I was here and I took a picture” shots; I wanted to create something different from the standard tourist shots that I was used to seeing.  Since that time, I see traveling as an opportunity to capture something that I can’t see while I’m home.  Maybe it’s the change in surroundings that allow my eyes to see new possibilities for images everywhere; maybe it’s the ability to capture the true sense of a city that only a photographer and the bond with his camera can; or maybe, at the very least, it’s a need to document a piece of my own personal history.  When an image is created via film, it becomes a tangible object that can continually be revisited.  The same can be said of a digital image that is printed.  The things we see and encounter on our travels become real, tangible memories that can be held in our hands.  There’s something magical about that.

I tend to get overly excited about what cameras and film I’ll be taking on a trip.  It takes longer for me to pack my camera bag than it does to pack my suitcase and I’m usually traveling with no less than five cameras.  I may not use every camera that comes along, but at least I’m prepared for whatever shooting situation might arise.  Even with a large supply of film and an array of cameras at my side, I often find myself being disappointed with the amount of images I come back with.  I always wish I would’ve shot more.  It’s funny, because when I regularly shot digital when traveling, I came back with an abundance of images.  The images weren’t all keepers and the majority of them are simply taking up valuable storage space on my hard drives.  One of the reasons that I l began shooting film more is that it’s allowed me to slow down, examine the scene and use my exposures wisely.  I began shooting film because I wanted to craft my photos from hand (using film, chemistry and making optical prints) and I was tired of the over-processed, too perfect look of digital and now I find myself wishing I had the quantity of pictures that I did when I was shooting digital.
It took awhile, but I think I’ve realized that I will never take as many pictures when traveling as I did in the past.  There are a few reasons for this:
(1)  I’ve been shooting film avidly for almost two years now.  I’m in the mindset that I have a limited number of exposures and I want to use them wisely.  I have trained myself to be even pickier than I was before.  I will never go back to firing off exposures because I can. 

(2)  When traveling, I have a limited amount of time in a location with an abundance of things to see and do.  In order to accomplish all that is planned while on vacation, sacrifices have to be made.  One of those sacrifices can sometimes be the amount of time spent photographing a particular location or the aimlessly wandering around taking photographs that can be easily accomplished while you’re at home. 

(3)  These travels are not specific photography excursions, where the entire day will be spent photographing whatever it is that I want.  I’m trying to create experience and memories with my wife and those don’t always include a camera. 

At some point in my life, I’ll travel to destinations for the sole purpose of photography.  Until then, I have to stop putting so much pressure on myself to come back with rolls upon rolls of film after a four, five or even seven day vacation.  I’m still shooting while on vacation, just not to the same degree that I shoot while I’m not on vacation.  I also have to accept the idea that sometimes it’s alright to shoot something to show that “I’ve been there.”  Vacations and travels are about experiencing local cultures, enjoying a new landscape and taking in this massive world that is outside of our doorsteps and comfort zones.  I briefly touched on it in my last blog post about Seattle, but the feelings and the memories that you bring back should resonate with you longer than any tangible item.  Engulf yourself in the city, become part of the local culture and reflect often.  It’s the true essence of travel; if I embrace this idea, my travel photography will come much easier and may even break down the rut that I seem to find myself in.