The Power of the Square

Oil Tank
Oil Tank

By the name of my blog one can assume that I like square images.  Recently I had an opportunity to see a show of another photographer who understood the power of the square, Irving Penn.  I spent 3 wonderful hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art wandering the galleries of Mr. Penn’s work.  I can not equate my work with Mr. Penn’s, I can only marvel at his genius and try to be inspired.  Mr. Penn like to shoot with a Rolleiflex, twin lens reflex camera.  His understanding of composition, not being afraid to include elements beyond the set etc., proved his love of the square format.

onion_skins
onion_skins

In the modern age of photography, we to have the opportunity to explore the power of the square.   One of the best things about Instagram is how wonderful it works with square images.  But the masses of those who use Instagram, think about their photos in the context of what they see in the moment.  This is not a bad thing but it thinking in squares requires additional thought and vision.  Don’t get me wrong, not every photo is better as a square  I’m sure there was always someone who wondered why Irving Penn included all this other stuff in his photos.  In fact, many were cropped for publication.

coffeemaker
coffeemaker

I don’t shoot with a square format camera, unless I’m using my iPhone.  Square format is one of the things I like most about iPhone as a  matter of fact.  Because my Instagram project is square I will on sometimes pass on photos that only work in horizontal or vertical format.  Oh well, but I sometimes find myself coming back to these photos with a different lens and sometimes that’s the solution.  By the way, on a totally different note, I was surprised to see how many of Mr. Penn’s beautiful B&W prints were originally shot in color.  One of the great things about photography, I never stop learning…

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Plants are better than Flowers

detail of SucculantI find that I like to photograph plants more than flowers.  The repetition of shapes, also know as Fractal Geometry is something I find very interesting.  As I have said before it’s one of the guiding principles of my ongoing projects.  I also find it harder to separate a flower photograph I like from the thousands of greeting card flower images we been subjected to throughout our lives.  Plants don’t suffer the same photographic indignities that the poor flowers have suffered through boring photography.  In fairness to both parties, looking at flowers in a non-traditional way can garner really cool images. But it takes some real thought.  So, maybe the challenge is worth a try for a game photographer.Detail of Caladuium leaf

Plants like caladium, with their broad, veiny leaves are one of my favorites to photograph. This plant has so many interesting color varieties and changes dramatically throughout is growing cycle.  To me it’s great fun to shoot them as they change and die.  It may sound a bit morbid but the visuals can be quite stunning.  The subtle coloration a change in transparency of leaves can really make for some interesting photos., color and black and white.detail of orange hosta leaf

I think that if I had to pick a very favorite plant to photograph if would be the Hosta.  Technically, I think the Hosta might actually be a flower because some varieties do produce a blossom.  But who cares, this plant looks good in so many conditions it’s hard to beat photo-wise.  I love to shoot these after rains, on sunny days, cloudy days etc.  There leaves look fantastic in color and black and white, throughout their lifecycle.  Being perennials you can shoot the same plant year after year.  I think this may be the prettiest plant to shoot at the end of it’s cycle.  The changes in color can be truly spectacular…triptych of three palnts

 

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People in my Pictures

picture of middle school girl

I love people in my pictures.  I have always been a  huge fan of the great portrait photographers, Yousuf Karsh, Arnold Newman, Annie Leibowitz just to name a few favorites.  But introducing people into my daily photo project is something different.  Theses photos are about form and composition, along with Light, Color and Texture.  I consider these carefully but tend to work relatively quickly.  Therefore, the people become forms more than personalities.  When I’m lucky, personality comes through even in these very quick compositions.  But unlike doing a portrait sitting, I get no chance to relate to the subjects in any meaningful way.picture of little girl with biker dad

Connecting fully with your subject is really the only way to achieve a deep and telling portrait.  Of course methods vary.  As an assistant, I worked with some very good portrait photographers that could extract truth from subject in very limited time.  This is usually all you get with celebs, business execs and politicians.  I love shooting portraits for commercial work and find that most people have a certain amount of time in front of the camera before they start to “zone out”.  So being prepared is really key but I try to have some conversations pre-shoot, off the set below the strobes start flashing.picture of man taking a picture of photographer

It’s also critical to give your subject a break, I like to shoot maybe 20 exposures before stopping to chat.  Again this is a call you have to make with each individual.  Some need warm-up time before they relax, others burn out quickly, thus the importance of getting a feel for the person you’re shooting.  All of  this compounds the issues for my project, so I really cherish the “people” pictures that work well.  I’m also very conscious of not stalking or being rude or threatening to people on the street as I’m out there everyday by design…triptych with 3 people pictures

 

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Love Repetitive Shapes

detail pf bolts on I beamI love repetitive shapes.  As I walk around looking for images this is usually one of my first priorities.  The idea comes from admiring the “fractal geometry” one finds in nature.  Repeating shapes is something humans do almost  without thinking, as if influenced by nature around them.  The combination of interesting repetitive shapes along with light and texture in man-made objects is a grand slam for me.detail of sneakers with no laces

I find that repetitive shape photographs also work well in the triptychs  I love to create.  They help tie images together without being  obviously thematic, Obvious themes are something I try avoid at all costs. Triangles, because of their use in architecture, seem to be the most prevalent shape repeated.  I’ve taken many a beautiful triangle photo. detail of plastic sawhorses

My love of grids also make me fond of squares and rectangles, thus Square is not Square.  Circles seem to be the hardest to make work, I really don’t know why.  My favorites are when I can combine repetition of many shapes in one photograph.  It’s just a matter of looking closely, whether man-made or mother nature…triptych of repetitve shape photos

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Love of Architectural Details

 

detail of StairsI love architectural details.  Doesn’t matter if they’re old or new.  I guess this comes from years of spending many hours with architects and interior designers.  I spent my early years shooting interior design stories during the rise of the shelter magazine.  I’ve also formed a great respect for the use of different materials in both interior and exterior construction.  Living in Brooklyn and in New York City, I’m exposed to an almost consent re-birth of old buildings and neighborhoods.  As a result, the craftsmanship and attention to detail of the “old world” is juxtaposed to new thought and innovation almost everywhere you look.

detail of a standpipeAs a result, I see old beauty replaced with poor new ideas on a regular basis.  I also see some incredible examples of “out of the box” thinking as well.  Don’t get me wrong, not everything old is beautiful or well thought out.  Just like today, compromises were made resulting in less than stellar results and it’s fun to try to figure what was the cause.  Lack of money, taste or talent, was and is usually the culprit.  I live in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, so named for the slope of the hill leading down from Prospect Park.  As you walk down the slope, the age and affluence of the areas original inhabitants is reflected in the architecture.

detail of the 4th avenue subway bridgeAlmost 175 years of style and design are in full view. Everything from some of the original pre-civil war farmhouses, to the beautiful Art deco details of the 4th Avenue and 9th Street subway bridge completed around 1929 still stand.  The bad news is that current developers, at times, seem to have an unbelievable disrespect of the surrounding buildings and visual feel for the neighborhood in general.  A lot of the  new construction gives not a fig for the beauty of the building next to it.  Truly unfortunate but all the more reason to record the good stuff both old and new…

triptych of architectural details

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Heavy Metal Beauty

Metal Sculpture detailI find myself attracted to metal .  Brushed metal surfaces are something I find very special.  There’s something about the way that this surface naturally reflects light that always gets visually excited.  Maybe it’s my love for beautiful black and white photographs, because of the way this material renders tones so easily.  Maybe because it works so well in in both high overcast light and hard light.  Each very different but beautiful in the their own way.  Metal seems to always draw me in close.  I find myself cropping in to make shapes out of larger shapes.Metal Citibike Dock Detail

Metal is used in so many interesting objects.  Metal surfaces can look sensual and soothing even when supporting massive weight.  I find the mono-chromatic, smooth versions  of metal amazingly sexual in flatter light, skin-like.  In fact, there are many similarities in how nudes and smooth metal surfaces render in black and white.  I find the reactions of viewers of metal photos often are sexual in nature.  When an image that could be perceived as sexual is presented, I’m  always interested as to whether the viewer goes there or not.  My theory is that everyone does but not all express it out loud.Metal Tank on a Truck DetailAnother beautiful thing about metal is rust.   Oxidation of different metals produces both color and texture of amazing variety.  This presents the opportunity to make wide abstract images on large surfaces that can look almost macro.  Equal examples of beautiful oxidation can be found on everything from pipes to fence posts. A wonderful thing when you ‘re in the mood to look for small photographs.  New York City and Brooklyn in particular, present endless juxtaposing uses of new and old metal.  Shine and rust exist everywhere you look.  A constant reminder of the never ending rebirth of neighborhoods and the city as a whole.  Never ending inspiration as well…Metal Triptych

 

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Digital’s Dirty Little Secrets

moire on latticeDigital has some dirty little secrets.  Maybe they’re not secrets anymore, as the digital era has taken over photography completely.  Does that mean we even have a digital era, but I digress.  The first thing I noticed when I switched to a digital back form a film back was that I could no longer focus my trusty Hasselblad by looking at the depth of field ring.  The DOF ring, on  the lens, showed two f-stops on either side.  Once you focused on a point in the photo you could use this ring to determine how much of your shot would be in focus.  With a Hasselblad and a tape measure you could focus your camera without ever looking through the lens and it was “money”.  Many times If I could not determine if I had enough DOF in a room scene I would measure and set the f-stop and know with certainity the photo would be sharp.ice on frozen pondOld school guys know what I’m talking about.  But with a $30K digi back this great tool  no longer functioned properly.  This  was something no maker of equipment would admit.  We also began to realize how much digital “back-focuses”.  In addition, the age old rule of focus, 30% foreground, 70% background, turned into 50/50.  Then came the realizations about “camera shake”, the reason all you “full auto” shooters are always shooting at 125/sec.  Many times I’ve handheld a film body for a 1 sec. exposure and would still have sharp images, try that with your fancy Mark IV.Plastic wrapped palletNow we’re heading toward the era of “pick your focus in post”, relegating focus concerns to the dust bin of history.  I must admit to being fascinated by the possibilities of focusing after the fact. Even though I’ve pointed out these things I miss, don’t get me wrong,  I like my post as much as anyone.  I guess I always hoped in would remain a tool.  More of a means to an end, rather than the end itself…triptych of moire, ice and plastic covered pallet

 

 

 

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Go Graphic in Flat Light

 

Going graphic in flat light can save the photographic day.  Many photographers are repelled by flat light.  I think the most overused excuse for a photograph not working out is “the light is boring”.   Depending on what you like to shoot this can be the case, but with an open mind, high overcast can be quite beautiful.  First, let’s set some parameters for what is meant by flat light.  There are big differences between high soft overcast light and low hanging storm clouds.  The former can be a blessing, the later is much more difficult.  In either case, I start to look for graphic qualities in photographs when the light provides little or no shadows to work with.  By the way, color also can create interesting graphic images in these lighting conditions.graphic image of pipes

I always love high overcast light for shooting interiors.  Many a time I’ve arrived at a location to face a freaked out editor bemoaning the fact that there is no streaming brilliant sunlight blasting through the windows.  I quickly explain that this light will be our friend.  I could work much quicker and make beautiful photographs in “ping pong ball” light.  Meaning what it looks like if the world was covered by half a ping pong ball. This type of light made California the car capital of photography.  Metal shines evenly, shapes are highlighted gently, colors look more saturated and with digital, contrast can be added back at will.Graphic Brick Detail

Flat light is the great friend of digital photography.  We strive to record a flat curve so we can play endlessly in post with no limits.  Graphics seem to jump out at me more in flat light as well.  Maybe I’ve trained myself to look this way when  no shadows are present.  Color relationships also become prominent when light and shadow even out.  The moral of the story is don’t fear the flat…triptyych of pipes and bricks

 

 

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Broader field of Vision, Wider field of Fire

 

vision of gowanus canalRecently I had a perfect winter day for shooting.  Warm weather, little cloud cover, time of day, everything seemed perfect to walk and shoot.  I grab my camera, head towards a part of my neighborhood I’ve been wanting to photograph and nothing.  I just wasn’t seeing it.  Call it lack of inspiration maybe, it wasn’t for lack of trying.  Then it came to me that I was trying too hard.  Looking too closely and being too critical.  So I applied the old military strategy.  Broader field of vision, wider field of fire.  This applies to covering/protecting a position, the farther you are away, the more you see.vision old tunnel cieling

Don’t take this literally, I simply soften my vision of what’a happening around me.  I begin look for the light, follow it to a possible scene. Then consider what whether it makes a photo, or not.  As matter of habit, I try to walk in different directions in areas I’m familiar with.  I try to keep mental notes on places that didn’t work in the summer but may work in the winter, etc.  These are not formally written down, but as I broaden my vision, my minds eye recalls these experiences . Clearly not an easy experience to describe but the result is that I forget those things that were causing the “photographer’s block”.  vision pink concrete stairs

What I  begin to see are similar shapes and colors.  I try to shoot something, anything just to get the visual juices flowing.  On this  day it was a simple reflection on a wall.  From there other reflections and shadows became clear and I was off and running.  I was surprised by the number a quality of photos I made once the wider field of fire was established.  Not all were “keepers” but better than returning with nothing but some exercise…vision triptych light red texture

 

 

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Hard Days Light

light reflection on white wall

Hard light vs. Soft light.  For a long time I have to say that I favored the latter.  Mostly because in my commercial work I shot interior photographs and soft light wraps so beautifully around things.  It creates that “painterly” look that makes anything look better.  Honestly, for interior work, it’s easier to deal with if you know what your doing light-wise. I guess I  will always love that soft, directional light for certain subjects.  However, as I now spend a lot of my time wandering the streets of Brooklyn,  I’ve come to appreciate how harder, contrasty light works in this environment.Hard Light on string chair back

To be clear, one has to look for the right time of day to shoot.  There is a big difference between shooting at high noon in August and a clear, cloudless August day at 7pm.  Both angle and color of light are involved. We’ll save the color of light for another post. One of the benefits of hard/direct light in the urban environs is that there is much for light to to pass through and reflect off of. When the time of day/angle of light are right, I spend a lot of time looking for reflections.  My world is full of buildings and windows, cars and trucks, all reflecting light onto and through things.  I get very excited about these situations, as interesting shapes and shadows start to appear.  Hard Light shadow on cinder block of grate

Another bonus is that in these conditions, I can sometimes see through windows from the outside and the interior is lit.  In some cases, I can now balance the interior and exterior light, giving me even more options. Texture, on these days, just jumps out at you, as well.  Shadow shapes become very well defined, but be wary of exposure. Depending on the intensity of this hard day’s light, I tend to revert to the idea of exposing for the highlights and printing for the shadows.  Once again that old pre-digi/film experience comes in handy…hard light reflection triptych

 

 

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