You may recall that in my teens I was an apprenticed watch and clockmaker (an odd thing, given the fact that today I refuse to wear a watch! I come by my curmudgeonly ways naturally, though - my father, who worked for the telephone company, hated the idea that anyone in the world could wake him up in the middle of the night just by dialing a few numbers.) Because of my experience, it seems a little odd to me that many people have never seen the inside of a mechanical watch, let alone seen one being worked on or assembled.
Let's remedy that, shall we?
Ming Thein, a terrific commercial photographer and watch nut, has on his site a photo essay of the manufacturing process behind the superb timepieces of Jaeger-LeCoultre. The company is one of the older manufacturers in the industry, predating my own favorite Patek Philippe by a few years and upstart Rolex by the better part of a century. Jaeger-LeCoultre is well known in the business as an innovator, bringing to market some of the most advanced mechanical timepieces ever made; to get inside their factory as Thein did is a remarkable coup.
His photo essay is here. The pictures are simply superb; Thein's reputation for quality images is well deserved and will give you some insight into how a fine mechanical watch is made. Enjoy!
Ever heard of Maho Beach? It's on the French side of the little island of St. Maarten, a 33-square-mile speck of land in the Caribbean. (Yes, that tiny bit of earth is split between France and the Netherlands. Seems the French can't get along with the Dutch, either, and haven't been able to since 1648.)
The island's main airport, Princess Juliana International Airport, lies next to Maho Beach. Well, that's not quite accurate; the main runway for the airport actually starts at the edge of the beach. You can see it in this Google image:
Since this is the Caribbean, and St. Maarten has beautiful beaches, the island is a tourist destination for people all over the world. This means lots of airplanes landing there, and since the runway starts nearly on the beach, you end up with this:
In case you've missed it, a revolution has occurred in cinematography over the last few years. As cameras have gotten smaller, lighter, cheaper, and yet increased in resolution and capabilities, film makers have been pushing the equipment to the limit. Combined with relatively inexpensive editing software and hardware, it enables professional results on an amateur's budget. The result? Superb videos that either couldn't have been made, or would have been cost-prohibitive to attempt, before this all happened.
Here's one of those videos, shot on location in the jungles of south-eastern Mexico. I'd call this both extreme kayaking and extreme videography. Watch and understand.
A few days ago, the Maersk shipping line posted a cool video of the construction of their newest - and largest - ship. This new vessel, dubbed the "Triple E Line", is in fact the largest ship that currently exists: over 1,300 feet long, 193 feet wide, and nearly 240 feet tall. By way of comparison, the Titanic was only 882 feet long!
The video is a 76-second time lapse of some 50,000 photos that were shot over the space of 3 months, and it's impressive to watch. Enjoy!
As I mentioned recently, I attended SHOT Show 2013 in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago. The Thursday of the Show was spent shooting pictures for a new book by Gila Hayes, all about concealed carry for women. It's going to be published by Gun Digest Books this summer, and if it's even half as good as her last book (Personal Defense For Women) it'll be terrific. Gila really knows her subject and is incredibly thorough; it will no doubt immediately go on my "highly recommended" defensive book list!
This post, however, is about the photography for the book. Shooting at a trade show is difficult at best, made so by a combination of spotty illumination, mixed lighting types, and crowds of people. The Sands Convention Center has always been one of the worst venues for photography; on the main floor the lighting is very high and insufficient, requiring each booth to supply its own illumination, while on the lower level the lighting is brighter but an ugly combination of sodium vapor point sources and commercial fluorescents.
Normally I'd simply bring my light with me in the form of portable flashes (speedlights.) That was an issue in this case, however, because they require infrastructure: since there were no convenient walls or low ceilings to use as reflective sources, I would have needed to bring along light modifiers (softboxes or octaboxes) which require stands for support. That's a lot of gear to be toting around all day, but the biggest issue was the disruption the equipment would have made in the booths we were visiting. We needed to get in, get our shots, and get out with the least amount of interference to the exhibitors and attendees as possible. We’d be doing this dozens of times over the course of the day, making for a whole lot of setup and tear-down!
Had we been shooting in just a couple of locations I'd have brought the lighting anyhow, but that wasn't the case: we would be traversing the entirety of both floors in what would become a very long day. Moving all that gear (not to mention spare batteries for everything) just wasn't an exciting option without Sherpas, and Vegas is noticeably light on Sherpas. The bottom line was that everything would, by necessity, be shot in available light. The light was all overhead and very ugly, so to get usable pictures a little ingenuity would be in order.
The first issue was that of camera support. I’d determined that a tripod would not be suitable for use in the booths, for the same reasons light stands wouldn't. I ended up shooting everything with a full-frame Sony a850 on an old Gitzo monopod and Leitz ballhead. (How old? The monopod is probably 20 years old, and the ballhead is prewar. Yes, that would be World War II. Both still work fine and look great even with a modern digital camera attached to them!) Thankfully Sony has image stabilization built into their bodies, which means it works with any lens that you can fit on the camera. That came in handy over the course of the day.
This shot of Lisa Looper, the inventor of the FlashBang bra holster, is a good example of what we were up against:
There is a sodium vapor light fixture on the ceiling above her and slightly to camera right; there's another well behind her and ever so slightly to camera left. There were a couple of dimmer fluorescents behind the camera.
Normally those point light sources would cast ugly shadows under the eyes and chin. If I'd had flash gear that wouldn't be a problem, but I didn't - so I used the next best thing: a reflector. In years past I carried around a white vinyl roll-up shade to use as a reflector, and I've also been known to use silver-colored automobile window shields. In recent years, however, I've become a fan of the circular collapsible reflector/diffuser combinations. Unfolded they're about 30" in diameter, and collapse down to about 12" in diameter - small enough to stuff in the back pocket of my camera bag.
In Lisa's case I set the reflector at about torso level, angled toward her face and just out of camera view at the left. This bounced quite a bit of light back into her face to act as a fill for what would have been some nasty shadows. Careful positioning allowed the main light to make a nice key on her hair and shoulder. The other ceiling light to the rear was carefully framed to act as a hair light to give some separation to the top-right side of her head. (It also produced just a bit of flare, which reduced the contrast of the image a tad. That wasn't intentional, but it worked out.)
I had her hold the belt to reflect the light from the fluorescents behind me; that, coupled with the fill from the reflector, made very nice highlights on the pewter buckle.
The mix of light sources meant some color issues. The predominant color was the yellow/green sodium vapor, which I corrected for in Aperture. (I shoot everything raw so that color balance is easily dealt with in the computer.) Her light beige top shows color casts far more than pure white would, making color correction a delicate operation. There's still some slight color mismatch where the different lights hit, and the discontinuous sources mean a truncated color palette even with perfect white balance, but overall it's acceptable given the conditions under which it was made.
Of course I could always go into PhotoShop and correct those portions of the image that are slightly off, but since this will probably be reproduced in black-and-white I’m not going to bother. The best way to approach a shot like this is to use flashes gelled to the color of the predominant light source, expose for the desired background detail and adjust the flash intensity to bring the subject to the desired density. Once that's done it's an easy task to apply one white balance correction to the whole thing to make it all match. Too bad I couldn't do that!
Elapsed time for this setup, testing and the half-dozen frames we shot was about three minutes. (We did some other setups with her as well, including a couple of sequences of her drawing from a bra holster, so we were at her booth for 15 or 20 minutes and a total of 73 frames.) Of course during that time people were moving in and out of her booth, and several shots were ruined by people sticking their noses into the frame!
Lisa, however, was completely unfazed by the commotion. She’s got a great personality and is incredibly easy to photograph, which is really what makes this picture work!
It occurs to me that I haven't done a recent post about one of my favorite topics: abandoned places. For those just tuning in, I love to explore places that are no longer in use; places that have been left to rot away for whatever reason. Old houses, mine shafts, factories, military installations, railroad trestles - you name it, I like wandering around in them.
Sadly there aren't many of those kinds of places in my geographical area. I salve my disappointment by looking at other people's pictures of their wanderings, and today I'm linking to the work of Amy Heiden, courtesy of Fstoppers. The bowling alley is my favorite.
There was a time when Cape Canaveral (Cape Kennedy, for those who grew up in the late '60s) was the center of national and international attention. That's where all of our manned space launches happened: the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects, as well as the Space Shuttle missions. It drew throngs of tourists and resulted in a long-lived boom in the region. It was a place where real magic happened.
With the close of the Shuttle era, however, the infrastructure of Cape Canaveral is being idled. The thousands of technicians, engineers and scientists who worked there have dwindled, and along with them the tourists. The Cape is slowly turning into a ghost town, complete with empty attractions and shuttered businesses. The structures on launch pad LC-39B at the Kennedy Space Center were demolished in 2011, while the fate of sister pad LC-39A is uncertain.
Photographer David Ryle has spent some time there chronicling the decline of what has been called "Space Coast". A selection of his pictures are up at Fast Company, and are worth a look if you - like me - were ever fascinated by the idea of human beings being rocketed into space.
Of all the great photographers to come out of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) project, none was as enigmatic as Gordon Parks. Parks (born Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks; and you think your name is long) got his start as a young piano player in a brothel, and would go on to work as a composer, writer, musician, and film director. It was his work as a photographer, however, that would establish and cement his creative reputation.
Legend has it that he got his first camera in a pawn shop. When the film was developed, the clerks supposedly told him he had talent and should seek work as a photographer. Whether that story is true or not, Parks did have a tremendous eye. His photos, even those of gritty subjects such as the gangs of Harlem, have a style that can only be described as 'tasteful'. He handles his subjects with a deftness and, yes, class that shows through. Rich or poor, famous or infamous, his subjects are treated the same way: as human beings. Even his landscapes and cityscapes are presented with a respectful air.
Next to Parks, the excellent work of Ernst Haas seems to be clumsily reaching for meaning and approval. It's not that Haas was bad - quite the opposite - but rather that Park was just that good. He occupies a rare niche in image making.
Unfortunately he has not been as well recognized as he should be. For too long he's been pegged as simply an "African American" photographer, a label which I think is unfair to both him and his work. He was a photographer, period, and it's about time that he got recognized for being among the very best that has ever been.
Early color photography was focused (if you'll pardon the pun) on using what is known today as "additive" color: that any color can be produced by combining specific amounts of red, green, and blue light. The idea was that you could expose three pieces of film or glass plates through red, green and blue filters. Once processed, they could then be viewed simultaneously through their respective filters and the results would (in theory) produce realistic color.
This was difficult enough with a still image, but imagine trying to make it work while the films are moving through a projector! The earliest successful color motion pictures, known as Kinemacolor, exploited a trait of human vision called "persistence". Persistence simply means that once an image is viewed, it takes a little bit of time before it disappears completely in the viewer's mind.
Persistence is why motion pictures of any sort work: each still frame is projected for a fraction of a second, and while your visual system is clearing itself the next image, ever so slightly different than the first, is projected. Your mind doesn't see the extremely small time gap between the two, and the result is what looks like continuous movement.
Kinemacolor used persistence in a novel way: the individual frames would be exposed through a rotating filter that was synchronized with the shutter. The camera exposed the first frame through a red filter, then the next through a green filter, the next red, the next green, and so on. It also ran the film through the camera at double the rate of a normal black-and-white film so that each frame pair would take the same time to pass as a single frame of black-and-white.
When the film was projected, the reverse happened: the synchronized filters projected the first (red) frame through the red filter with which it was exposed, the second frame through the green filter, and each successive frame pairs were done the same way. Persistence and the high frame rate combined to fool the mind into seeing a single color image.
Kinemacolor wasn't perfect, however. Aside from registration problems which led to color fringing, it also didn't reproduce all colors very well because of the missing blue spectrum. Still, it was successful enough that quite a number of very early British films were made in the process.
As it happens, Kinemacolor wasn't even all that revolutionary. Turns out that it was a simplified version of a system worked out by London photographer Edward Turner. His system, conceived in 1899, used all three additive colors to produce very lifelike images. In 1901 and 1902 he made some test films using his process, but he died suddenly in 1903. A fellow by the name of Charles Urban acquired his work and used it to “invent” the much simpler (and cheaper) Kinemacolor process. In 1937, Urban donated a large archive of his work, including the Turner films, to the London Science Museum.
The Turner films weren't recognized for what they were until just a few years ago, when the Museum decided to unlock the secrets of the odd looking movies. Those test films were never seen by the general public, but just a few weeks ago the Museum’s hard work paid off: you can now - 110 years after they were shot - view them as Turner intended.
Way back, when my hair was thick and dark and my eyesight was 20-20 and I struggled to put weight on rather than keep it off, I taught photography classes. One of the things I always reiterated to my students was that if their pictures were no good, a new camera wasn't what they needed. None of them believed me, of course, because when their pictures were bad they went right out and bought a new camera or lens. The cycle would then repeat itself until they had huge bagfuls of equipment, yet their pictures still sucked.
The ultimate illustration of this point comes to us in the form of some wedding photographs from a photographer named Kim Thomas. Now I will admit to having some prejudice against wedding photographers, having historically considered them one rung up the ladder from the folks who do school photos, but there are some real artists in that field. Ms. Thomas is one of them, and she recently proved it by shooting an entire wedding on - get this - an iPhone and processing the pictures through Instagram.
(The comments to the article are predictable. There are several who criticize the photographer, stating something along the lines of "what happens if they want nice, sharp prints?" Reminds me of my argument with a Kodak VP many years ago who disagreed with my then-radical assertion that electronic cameras would one day take over photography. "Nonsense", he said, "people will always want to hold their memories in their hands!" Look how well that worked out for them…)
I've written before of the depression-era Farm Security Administration (FSA) and their photographic propaganda campaign, of whose results I'm a big fan even if I decry the manipulative intent behind them. Their photographers roamed the country and produced phenomenal documentation of both urban and rural areas that would not exist were it not for their efforts.
A couple of them made it here to Oregon, and I've seen some of the photos they made. However, I was completely unaware that on July 4, 1936, the great Arthur Rothstein had been in my little hometown: Molalla, Oregon, population (at that time) about 700. Then, as now, the big event in town was the annual rodeo - the Molalla Buckeroo - and Rothstein was in attendance.
He made this picture of what he identified as a Warm Springs Indian at the old Buckeroo Grounds, which was near the middle of town. (The grounds were demolished and new ones built outside of town when I was a teenager, hence the "old" designation.)
The fence behind the gentleman ran the circumference of the grounds and was regularly maintained right up until the demolition. It’s entirely possible that at least a few of those boards survived to the early 70s, when I helped paint them in preparation for the annual festivities. (They sure seemed like they had been there over four decades, but then anyone over 18 seemed ancient to my young eyes.)
-=[ Grant ]=-
P.S.: Please, no partisan comments on how great FDR was or how his programs allegedly saved the country. This time, I'll be deleting them.
I haven't done anything on abandoned structures lately, but when today's subject popped up...well, it's perfect.
Have you ever wondered what happens to the grounds of large events, like a World's Fair -- or, say, the Olympics? Sometimes, like Lake Placid, they continue to be useful. In other cases, like the site of the 2004 Games in Athens, they simply stand as a monument to wasted resources.
In eight short years, the site of the 2004 Olympic Games has gone from showplace to eyesore. The Greeks spent tons of money to build a very impressive venue, and today it stands empty -- a tribute to the human desire to outdo our neighbors.
How many other Olympic sites around the world have suffered the same fate? I don't know, but I have a hunch that Athens isn’t alone.
Head on over to the NYTimes Lens Blog, where they've showcased the Athens pictures of Jamie McGregor Smith. Smith has a reputation for photographing abandonment on a large scale, and his pictures of the Greek mistake are superb. The Blog has links to his website, where you can view his other projects -- including some great pictures of our own gigantic and growing abandonment, Detroit.
One of the most common compliments I get about my Gun Digest Book Of The Revolver regards the pictures. People tell me that they appreciate the photography, and I'm happy that they noticed - I went to a lot of effort to make sure that the photos supported the text, that the reader could look at them and get the point easily. Apparently, the goal was met!
My publisher, Gun Digest Books, was so taken with them that they've put up a gallery on their site featuring 20 of the photos from the book. If you haven't yet gotten your copy (you haven't?!?!?), here's a taste of what you'll see.
I've written previously about my general fascination with the photography of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and its successor in documentary imagery, the Office of War Information (OWI.) The FSA was really nothing more than a propaganda machine for the Roosevelt administration, and the head of the FSA - Roy Stryker - was diligent in his job. He hired good photographers and artists, gave them cameras and film, and sent them all over the USA to get the shots necessary to help the President sell his various make-work, wealth redistribution, and nanny state schemes.
The plan worked, and the photos they made were carefully archived in Washington. Apparently, though, Stryker was not all that trusting of his employer. He sent a second archive of 41,000 images to the New York Public Library for safekeeping, where they sat until 2005 - when someone decided to actually catalog them.
Now this story wouldn't be at all interesting without a twist. After all, the entire FSA catalog is in the Library of Congress (LOC) and available online. Who cares about the duplicates sitting in the Big Apple? As it happens, they weren't all dupes; there were about a thousand images in the New York collection that weren't in the LOC. They're now seeing the light of day once again.
The photography of Ernst Haas has always been enigmatic to me. Unlike the work of many other photographers, his images don't draw me in; I don’t feel a desire to look at them.
A Joel Meyerowitz image, for instance, almost begs me to stop and take it in. A Haas image, in contrast, seems aloof and uninviting - yet at the same time oddly compelling. I don't want to look at his work, but something tells me to do so anyway. It attracts me on an intellectual level, rather than an emotional one.
Haas is known for his pioneering work in color photography (though he did publish a book of black-and-white images made early in his career.) He uses color as a primary element in his compositions, but not like others do; in the Haas world, color exists as an element unto itself. It can be argued that Pete Turner does the same thing, but his photos use color to redefine objects; Haas doesn't care what the object is, because it's the existence of the color itself which is important to him.
Jack Delano produced some of the better-known photographs at the Farm Security Administration, and during that time he visited Puerto Rico and fell in love with the land and its people.
After WWI he and his wife moved to the island, and Jack continued to make pictures of his new home. The Lens Blog at the New York Times has a nice selection of photos from his Puerto Rico work. No overt political or propaganda messages here, just a nice pictorial made from the heart.
Today marks the final scheduled launch of our Space Shuttle. While one can argue about the merits of the program, it was a great example of what our country could do if we simply decided to do it. Back in '79 I could not have conceived that space launches would be so common that people would scarcely pay attention to them, yet that's exactly what happened.
As it turned out most of the Shuttle's jobs could be just as easily (and usually less expensively) be done using expendable rockets. Still, despite my avowed position as a critic of government involvement in most areas of life I'm glad that my tax dollars went to fund the Shuttle.
Sometimes, folks, you've got to do something outlandish just to prove you're alive. NASA has given us a collective way to be outlandish, the national equivalent of your local municipality's fireworks display.
Here are some rarely seen images made in Hiroshima shortly after the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945. The pictures were originally classified, but went missing some four decades ago and were presumed lost. The story is that they finally turned up in a suitcase in a pile of trash, at which time the International Center of Photography was able to acquire them for display.
Back in the 1980s digital imaging was still a laboratory experiment. Pictures were made on film, and if you wanted to do anything to the image after it was recorded you had to master (or know someone who had mastered) such arcane things as register masking, transparency stripping, and optical printing.
Toward the end of the decade very powerful (and expensive) graphics workstations came available that were able to manipulate digitized images. Note 'digitized', not 'digital'; the pictures were still made on film, and the negatives or transparencies were digitized on a drum scanner to be read by a computer.
The big boys on the block were Scitex, an Israeli company that made a name for themselves in the emerging field of digital pre-press equipment. Their digital imaging workstation was combined with a Hell drum scanner and a film recorder to provide a way to retouch and alter photographs. The negative or transparency would be scanned, manipulated by the computer, then sent to the film recorder -- which made a new negative or transparency which was processed and printed conventionally. The results were almost comically primitive by today's standards, but back then it was a viable alternative to having a very expensive stripped dye transfer made.
Scitex wasn't the only player in the market, but they were the best known. Eastman Kodak, in yet another of their half-hearted attempts to break into digital imaging, introduced their 'Premier' digital editing system in 1990. Like the Scitex it combined a workstation, Hell scanner, and film recorder. I never used a Scitex, but I did get some experience on the only Premier system installed in Oregon. At the time it was magical, but today we can do all of the things the Scitex and Premier systems did on an iPad -- only faster and easier!
Just a couple years later the Premier system I used was scrapped, already a victim of the emerging PC and Mac digital image applications. Cost was a factor in their failure; I seem to recall that the installation I used was well north of $200,000. About that time Scitex gave up dedicated workstations and develop a more cost-efficient system based around a Mac II microcomputer and Sharp scanner. That didn't last long, either; it was quickly surpassed by the emerging (and now ubiquitous) Photoshop.
Here's a great video from 1988 showing the then-amazing things a Scitex could do.
Back in the late '70s and early '80s I was working in a camera store while waiting my chance to make it big as a commercial photographer (which, in turn, was my backup plan if I didn’t make it as a trumpet player. Good thing I had that major in accounting to fall back on! Ironically, I ended up doing none of those things. Life is like that sometimes.)
But I digress. The employees in the camera store would regularly hang their own work on the walls, giving a chance to showcase their talent while establishing a baseline of credibility with the customers.
One of the most common misconceptions was that our photos were good only because of the 'fancy cameras' we possessed. Despite the availability of photography classes (many of which I taught), people would routinely choose to spend gobs of money on expensive gear instead of a mere pittance on developing their skills with what they already had.
Often such people would wander back after a few months and complain that, despite spending all of their savings on the latest and greatest gear, they still couldn't get good pictures. "Why won't a good camera take better pictures?" Sometimes we could get through to them, most times not. The American belief in equipment over ability was, and still is, pervasive.
There are still folks today who do what my colleagues and I did: attempt to educate rather than encourage consumption. Over at Fstoppers, they've posted a video about the making of some great photos using a camera many people have with them all the time: a cameraphone, in this case an iPhone 4. Watch it and see what they do with just a couple of reflectors and a cute girl.
(Think those reflectors fit the definition of ‘fancy gear’? You don't need a commercially produced item - a sheet of white foamboard, spray glue, gold foil from the craft store, and some aluminum foil from your kitchen will make a very serviceable two-sided substitute for a total investment of under $10. You can also use one of those reflective car heatshields, which come with silver on one side and gold on the other.)
The funny thing is that back in the '80s we did the same thing with a Kodak Disc camera. It wasn't about the gear then, and things haven't changed at all. Regardless of the topic at hand, opening a wallet is unlikely to make a person any better at anything -- unless the credit card is paying for an educational activity to help develop a skill.
Joel Meyerowitz ranks as one of my all-time favorite photographers. He jumped into the spotlight with the 1979 publication of his groundbreaking book "Cape Light" and has been going strong ever since.
At the time that book came out I was shooting mostly B&W. As I'm now known as "the revolver guy", back then people knew me as "the black-and-white guy'. I tried to embrace color as a means to interpret a scene, but couldn't get past the concept that it was merely a recording tool. For me, B&W was the expressive side of photography; color was what you took boring vacation pictures with.
I’d been exposed to the work of acknowledged masters of color such as Gordon Parks and Ernst Haas, but neither really said much to me. Meyerowitz's work, on the other hand, resonated deeply. It changed the way I looked at color, even though my work and his look nothing alike. His work had feeling, capturing how his scenes felt rather than merely appeared.
Now, at 73 years of age, Meyerowitz has embarked on a new project. He's gotten a commission for yet another book, this time on Provence. He's spent a lot of time in Tuscany (and did at least one book there), but apparently this is his first time seriously photographing the French countryside. It will no doubt be a great set of images.
He and his wife Maggie are blogging about the project. Their blog is only a couple of weeks old, but I'm already hooked on charting their progress. Naturally it's liberally illustrated, and it will be interesting to see what makes it into the book.
That is, if he can just stay away from the hot water tap. (You'll have to read the blog to find out...)
Brian Lanker, Pulitzer-prize-winning photographer, died last week at only 63 years of age. He lived here in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, in the college town of Eugene.
Brian started out at the Topeka Capital-Journal, where in 1973 he shot a surprisingly controversial essay on childbirth. At that time there were almost no published pictures of a child actually being born, which might seem odd today. This was 1973, however, when a father's presence in the actual delivery room was still a rare occurrence. It was a time when mothers went in by themselves, and a nurse or doctor would walk into the waiting room to announce "Mr. Smith, you're the father of a beautiful little girl!"
That essay - featuring the woman who would end up becoming Brian's wife - netted him a Pulitzer Prize and catapulted him into the 'big leagues.'
After earning his Pulitzer Brian was hired at the Eugene Register-Guard as their Director of Graphics. His tenure changed the face of photojournalism across the country, affecting the ways in which much larger newspapers approached the use of visual information. What your paper looks like today can be traced directly back to the work that Lanker did in what many would think to be a ‘backwater’ of journalistic ability. He also mentored younger photographers, and there are a number of good photojournalists working today who got their start in his department.
Of course his tenure at the paper didn't stop his photography. He continued to do assignments for magazines, corporate advertising, and along the way published several books of his work. Brian was versatile enough to jump from shooting the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition (two years in a row) to doing “I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America” with equally superb results. Very few photojournalists have that kind of ability (though they all think they do!), but Lanker did. He did it all, and did it well.
A couple of years ago one of those self-storage concerns in Chicago auctioned off the contents of one of their units. This is not an uncommon occurrence throughout the country; when a storage unit's rent goes unpaid, the storage company opens the unit and auctions off whatever they find. (I went to one such auction, and when the unit was opened it was discovered that the renter had disassembled an entire automatic car wash and stuffed it into the space!)
In this particular case the unit had been rented by one Vivian Maier, who - as it turned out - had died in April of 2009. Ms. Maier had no heirs, no one who apparently knew of this rental, and so her belongings went to the highest bidders.
As it turned out Ms. Maier was something of a photography buff. In this unit were hundreds of thousands of negatives and slides, and hundreds of rolls of exposed but undeveloped film. Several people bought several lots of this stuff, and there the story might have ended were it not for the fact that Ms. Maier was, by all appearances, a talented photographer - a very talented photographer.
The bulk of her collection ended up in the hands of two different gentlemen: John Maloof, described as an "eBay entrepreneur and real estate agent", and Jeff Goldstein, who apparently has a background in art galleries and shows. Maloof and Goldstein have become crusaders of sorts for their desire to expose Vivian Maier's talent to the world.
And what work it is! Her photos are very compelling and show a photographer who is in full control of her craft. Technically and artistically, her work is as good - better, in many ways - as photographers who have made much bigger names for themselves. Her pictures are worth examining closely, because they really are a find.
There is, however, one nagging question in the back of my mind: was she for real? There's something I can't quite put my finger on, something that leaves me with doubts about the poignant picture that has emerged of Maier - unmarried, no children of her own, living out her life as a nanny while maintaining a secret identity as an ace street photographer. The thing that comes to my mind as I look through her photos is that they’re too good.
It’s not just the images. Her whole story just seems too good to be true, so like a movie plot that it could almost be a very slick viral marketing campaign for an upcoming Hollywood blockbuster. That she looks a lot like actress Nancy Kulp, best known for her portrayal of Miss Jane Hathaway on The Beverly Hillbillies, only intensifies the doubt.
Goldstein and Maloof, of course, insist that everything is on the up-and-up, but it's worth noting that they both stand to profit from their ownership of her work. I'm not saying that's their motivation (at least, not their sole motivation), but the possibility must be considered.
In the meantime, there are the photographs: undeniably good, wonderful to peruse. Whether Vivian Maier took them or not, they're still terrific. Go and have a look.
If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll remember that I've been following the demise of Kodachrome film with some interest. In June of '09 came the news that Kodak had stopped producing the stuff, and in August we learned that the last roll produced by Kodak had been processed at the sole remaining Kodachrome processor. We also learned that they would be closing that service at the end of the year.
Yesterday, December 30th 2010, the last roll of Kodachrome was processed and the machines were turned off for good. The complex chemicals necessary to take a roll of Kodachrome from exposed film to vibrant transparency are no longer made, and it's not possible to do the process in one's basement. Kodachrome is dead.
Non-photographers, or those who have come up solely in the digital age, may not understand the wistfulness of this subject. That's partly because Kodachrome's attributes can't yet be duplicated in digital. My 24mp SLR can beat the resolution, but it can't match the color depth, unique tonal rendition, or the enlargability of the image (a transparency gets grainy as it's enlarged, while a digital image loses resolution.) Many people have tried to duplicate the Kodachrome look in Photoshop, but no one has succeeded. Someday maybe, but for now that look is gone.
Lest you think I'm pining for the old days, think again. I never shot a lot of Kodachrome, because it didn't match the way that I saw my subjects. I was always looking for subtle tonal transitions, accurate color reproduction, and wide luminance ranges - all the things that Kodachrome couldn't deliver. (Digital has trouble doing so too, but that’s another topic entirely.) That doesn't mean I didn't shoot the occasional roll (or ten or twenty) when I wanted that look, but it wasn't often I did.
What bothers me about the death of Kodachrome isn't how it looked, but its accessibility over time. One can go to the Library of Congress and peer at many Kodachrome transparencies made nearly seventy years ago, and they're as vibrant today as they were then:
Digital images, being composed of ones and zeros, won't degrade over time, but the media on which they're stored will. More importantly, our ability to read that media may deteriorate faster than anything. Computerworld ran this great 2009 story of the difficulty of reading lunar images stored on tape a scant 40 years ago. What happens in the latter part of our century, when the hard drives and DVDs that are common today can't be read - because the technology has changed?
With a Kodachrome, all you have to do is look at it. That's what makes it special, and why its disappearance - as well as that of all the other analog imaging media - is so concerning to future history.
When I talked about tools a couple of weeks ago, a regular reader emailed and said that his father had owned a service station in the 1960s too. He asked what brand, and I told him Texaco. He then forwarded a link to this shot of an abandoned Texaco station somewhere in North Dakota.
The picture is hosted at a site called shorpy.com, and that link encouraged me to spend the next hour looking at the historic photos that are Shorpy's raison d'être. Shorpy is sort of a cross between a photo album and a blog, and with thousands of photos in their archive I’m going to need a lot more spare time! All pics have a small preview like this one, and clicking on any of them brings up a high-res version. Neat!
Very cool site that has become one of the few on my "daily read" bookmark.
In 1935, a fellow by the name of Roy Stryker went to work for the federal government. Specifically, he took over the job of managing the Historical Section of Roosevelt's Resettlement Administration. Almost immediately the organization morphed into the Farm Security Administration, and his section became the Information Division.
Without putting too fine a point on it, Stryker's job was propaganda - to give the Administration what they needed to justify spending money that they didn't have. To further this aim, he came up with an idea: he'd send out a bunch of photographers to make pictures that would both tug at America’s heartstrings and provide support for Roosevelt's policies. He gathered a bunch of talented people from varied backgrounds - writers, painters, and budding photographers - and sent them over the country to make pictures.
While we can certainly debate the means of the program, the ends were spectacular. Stryker's team shot over 164,000 pictures, producing hundreds of iconic images and launching the careers of many talented photographers. So good was the group that they would later be transferred to the Office of War Information to document the country’s entry into World War II, though their tenure would last only a year.
Of those hundreds of thousands of images they shot, only 644 were in color. Color film was quite expensive, even for the government's pockets, but more importantly couldn't be reproduced in the newspapers of the day. Its use was therefore quite limited, and the photos somewhat rare.
(What happened to Stryker? In 1943 he went to work for Standard Oil, who foresaw the need to polish their own public image. Several of the FSA photographers, now unemployed after the OWI cut them loose, went to work to make Standard look good. They succeeded, and the Standard Oil photographs of that period still stand as supreme examples of industrial photography. It’s too bad that Stryker died in 1975 - I’m sure BP could use his services right about now.)
The roll was shot by photojournalist Steve McCurry, and the images on it range from New York to India to Parsons, Kansas - where the last Kodachrome processing line is located. It, too, will be going the way of the dinosaur this December, when the equipment will be shut down for good.
Bonus points: can you decipher the meaning of my title? Extra bonus points if you can do so without a search engine; super extra bonus points if you can tell me how 'Rhapsody in Blue' is related to Kodachrome.
I'm fickle, in that my favorite things change frequently depending on what's in my hands at the moment. "This my favorite! No, THAT'S my favorite! Wait - that one is REALLY my favorite!" Fountain pens, .22 rifles, hats, revolvers (of course), and cameras.
Especially cameras. It's hard to pick just one.
What I do know is that I've shot more frames through one model than any other, by a wide margin: the Pentax KX. I'm not talking about the modern digital incarnation, but the original, all metal, mechanical, manually operated film camera. It was, to my mind, one of the best products ever to come from Asahi Optical and one of the best 35mm SLRs that I ever used.
Images courtesy of Turbof (http://adsl-065-013-121-247.sip.pfn.bellsouth.net/camera_collector/pentax/k/k.html)
The KX is one of those machines that turned out to be a lot more than the manufacturer probably intended. Introduced in the mid-70s, during a time when many other legendary cameras were being manufactured, the KX proved to be a worthy "semi professional" camera of great durability and superb image quality. It was competitive with and contemporary to the Canon FTb, the Nikon Nikkormats, and the upper portion of the Minolta SR-T series.
The KX was a medium sized camera, and its features were common for the day: depth-of-field preview, mirror lock-up, 1/1000 second shutter, aperture display in viewfinder. What set it apart were a couple of things that its competitors didn't have: shutter speeds displayed in the viewfinder and a new, sensitive but linear silicon blue meter cell.
The only camera that really compared to the KX was the Nikon FM, introduced at the end of the KX model run. It was as if Nikon had taken direct aim at the KX, for their new model had features to rival the Pentax veteran (except, surprisingly, the mirror lockup.) The only advantage the new Nikon had was the MD-11 (later MD-12) motor drive. Even with that they were behind the curve, as Pentax had made a special edition of the KX that took a drive as well: the rare KX-Motor body.
Images courtesy of Turbof (http://adsl-065-013-121-247.sip.pfn.bellsouth.net/camera_collector/pentax/k/k.html)
The KX-Motor was exactly like the plain versions, with the addition of the mechanics and circuitry necessary to run a slightly modified version of the attachable motor from the Spotmatic MD model dubbed the Motordrive II. There was no external indication, other than the baseplate, which indicated that this was a special-order-only camera. Since the entire KX model line was only made for three years, that makes KX-Motor one of the rarer Pentax products.
I owned a number of KX cameras, and was fortunate to count two KX-Motor bodies among them. At the time I knew they were uncommon but only now realize how rare they actually were!
KX bodies came in both chrome and black finishes. The black bodies were enamel over brass, which was the common construction method of the time. I once stripped the worn enamel off the brass pieces of one of the bodies, polished them until they were mirror bright, then applied clear lacquer to keep tarnish away. The result was stunning and I became known as "the guy with the gold camera." I later sold that body to a friend to fund my move to Olympus OM equipment...a story unto itself.
In use the KX proved to be a true photographer's tool. Controls fell perfectly to hand, everything worked smoothly, and the silicon blue meter was accurate down to ridiculously low light levels. Of course the quality of Pentax lenses was never in doubt, and the images produced by the combination of body and optics were always superb.
None of that would mean much if the camera didn't hold up. I admit to being rough on gear, to the point that the guy who repaired my cameras regaled his customers with stories about damage sustained by my cameras in various mishaps. Twenty years later he’s probably still telling them!
The KX was incredibly rugged even in my hands, and it's one of the very few cameras that I was never able to break to the point that it wouldn't function. I've broken many others, but despite the heavy use to which I put them never had a KX fail. (Wish I could say the same for Pentax's "pro" camera, the LX.)
KX bodies accompanied me on both personal and professional assignments, from standing in the middle of rivers to crawling around the dirty confines of a foundary and everything in between. I knew that I could always rely on them to bring back the images I needed. They weren't the flashiest or most impressive bodies (save for my special gold model), but they always delivered top notch pictures.
At one time I was a devoted fan of Leica rangefinder cameras. I owned many of them over the years, culminating with a beat-up example of the much maligned M5 (2-lug) model. Like many photographers I held a special place in my heart for the legendary Leica M3, though mine was the less desirable (and thus cheaper) double-stroke version. One could say that I was something of a Leica snob, and that wasn't too far from the truth.
This makes my favorite rangefinder seem somewhat odd, because it wasn't a Leica.
At one point I picked up a Kodak Retina IIIS rangefinder for next to nothing, largely because I thought it would be a nice decoration on my bookshelf. Along with it came a 50mm f2.8 Schneider Xenar, a superb 35mm f2.8 Schneider Curtagon, and a 135mm Schneider Tele-Xenar. The camera and lenses were in near-mint condition, having been traded in on a more modern 35mm SLR with zoom lens.
The Retina series of cameras were made in Germany by the Kodak-owned Nagel Camerawerk. Most of them were small folding cameras, but the IIIS was unique: it was a solid body rangefinder with interchangeable lenses. It was a large, heavy camera compared to the Leicas (or the rest of the Retina series), but it boasted a large, bright viewfinder with automatically changing framelines and parallax correction!
The viewfinder was terrific, but the really great thing from my perspective was the shutter. The IIIS had a between-the-lens leaf shutter sourced from Compur, which meant that it could flash synch at all shutter speeds. More importantly it meant that the shutter was quiet. Very, very quiet. Next to the IIIS, a Leica M3 sounded like a bomb going off. Those who know the Leica cameras and their reputation for stealth might be amazed, but it was true; even the photographer often couldn't hear or feel the Retina shutter fire.
This made it ideal for surreptitious shooting, but especially for such things as concerts and plays. While the lenses weren't terribly fast, thus limiting their indoor capabilities, it was possible to make very good available-light shots with the camera. I did so on many occasions.
I also loved the depth-of-field indicators. They were two red pointers on either side of the focus point mark, and as the aperture was changed they moved in or out (in sync, one moving left and one moving right) to indicate the zone of acceptable sharpness. This was similar to the way the lenses on the Hasselblad cameras worked, and to this day I miss that unambiguous display.
Over time I grew away from the rangefinder in general, finding the newer compact SLRs to easily take their place. Except for the noise, of course. Today I'd love to have a good digital rangefinder camera, but the only one currently being made is the insanely priced Leica M9. (A solid contender, the Epson RD-1, was recently discontinued and the prices have skyrocketed well past "reasonable." There are some others that boast add-on digital viewfinders, but they stink. The viewfinders, I mean!)
I found this some time ago, and thought it was an intriguing site in the growing "abandoned things" genre. It's not just about subways, either - photographer Shawn Dufour has lots of cool sites pictured: factories, hospitals, even a railroad yard.
The XE-7 is one of the cameras I've admired from afar, but never actually owned. This wasn't because of any lack of the camera itself, or of the superb Minolta lenses, but simply because it had been discontinued several years before I got involved in photography. The XE-7's successors weren't nearly as interesting, and their lack of a reliable "pro" camera throughout their history meant that there was no upgrade path. That left the XE-7 sitting on its own little photographic island.
But what an island it was!
Photo courtesy of Stan C. Reade Photo, http://www.stancreade.com
The XE-7 was rumored to have been developed "in conjunction" with E. Leitz, the makers of the famous Leica line of cameras. I'm not sure that was the case, as a tear-down reveals significant similarities to the XK model, introduced in 1972, and both preceded the rebranded Leica R3 version by several years. That assertion does, however, give one a good feel for just how well the XE-7 was built.
The shutter, sourced from Copal, was quiet and accurate. Film advance was as smooth as anything ever made in the 35mm field. Metering was predictable and accurate (as long as the aperture follower, which coupled the meter to the lens, stayed clean - a common weakness of all Minolta MC/MD mount cameras.) The camera was just a joy to use, and those times I took to the field with borrowed XE-7s were magical. The camera was responsive and easy to adapt to; the images were clean, clear, and had wonderful contrast.
Part of the stellar performance was, of course, due to the Minolta Rokkor lenses. Minolta produced some of the very best optics to ever come out of Japan; to this day, knowledgeable photographers wax poetic about the color rendition of their designs. (They were good enough that Leica bought several Minolta lenses, with no change other than mounts, to round out the lens line for their SLR cameras.)
The camera proved to be fairly rugged, the aperture follower issue notwithstanding. One of my colleagues had a pair of them that he used extensively while working as a photojournalist, and they looked like they'd been through a war zone. They still worked perfectly despite the abuse.
Sadly, the XE-7 was discontinued in 1977 to make way for the more modern XD series of cameras. While the XDs were certainly smooth, nicely functioning machines, they weren't the photographer's tool that the XE-7 was. It was because of the lackluster XD that I generally ignored Minolta, despite their uncompromising optics.
-=[ Grant ]=-
P.S.: Regarding Minolta "pro" cameras - yes, I know all about the XK and the XK Motor. I also know, far too well, how unreliable those cameras were in actual use. The XK Motor, in particular, was perhaps the least reliable "pro" camera I've ever seen, with many examples making multiple trips to Minolta for repeated repairs. I liked the XK, and to this day feel the XK Motor to be one of the nicest-handling large SLRs ever made, but they just didn't have what it took in the durability department. More's the pity.
I just returned from a visit to Virginia Beach, where I attended the Combat Focus Shooting Instructor Development (CFSID) course. I've been searching my brain for a one-word description of what the class is like, and this is the only thing that even comes close:
We spent 4 days and just shy of 60 hours learning the ins and outs of Combat Focus Shooting so that we could accurately and efficiently communicate the program to students. We spent the first of those day on the range...no, that's not quite right; for any other course it would have been the first day, but for us it was roughly half of the first day, as the entire session ran well past 9pm. The rest of the week was spent not on becoming better shooters, but learning to be better teachers.
We studied a little of everything: anatomy, physiology, neurophysiology, psychology, philosophy, and more. By the end of the fourth day, which is when testing was done, my brain was fried. I don't even remember the final written test, but I do remember nearly passing out somewhere on page three (serious blood sugar drop, complete with tremors and sweating.)
Apparently I finished it. At least, I think I did!
This isn't like most other instructor courses. Most of the time, an instructor certificate is a matter of showing up, shooting well, and having your check clear. CFSID is different; Rob Pincus is committed to producing good teachers, not just good demonstrators. That showed in the caliber (pardon the pun) of the people who were there, as I'd be confident in recommending any one of them as a competent and knowledgeable instructor.
There's a reason that, historically, less than 50% of Combat Focus Shooting instructor candidates pass the course. It's that tough, and takes a phenomenal amount of mental discipline just to make it through.
As it happens, my return trip routed me through Chicago, where I spent nearly three hours waiting for my next flight. Turns out that Tam was in Chicago at the same time. Wish I'd known, I'd have loved to finally meet her.
We also got to study some (unintentional) modern art, courtesy of an ancient video projector that refused to hold a sync signal with Rob's new MacBook:
Yes, that's Rob Pincus getting all Warhol on his students.
I don't usually plug local businesses, but this one deserves it.
The day before I left, I discovered that my old camera had died. It powered up, but none of the controls worked. (It will still take pictures, but the exposure control is fried and the autofocus appears to be only sporadically active.) We had planned to upgrade our camera later this year, but this forced our hand: we needed it now.
I spent that day not packing, but running all over Western Oregon to find the camera I'd decided on. I finally found the body, but the lens I wanted wasn't in stock anywhere. I decided to pick up a used optic as stopgap measure, while I waited (and recovered financially) for the one I really wanted. Trouble is that none of the camera stores I called carried much (or any) used equipment. About that time I remembered seeing a yellow pages ad for a little one-hour photo place located in a small town fairly close to us. I had it in my mind that the ad said something about used cameras, and since phone calls are free I dialed their number. A pleasant young lady answered the phone and said that yes, they had used gear and that they had several suitable lenses for me.
What I found when I walked into Focal Point Photography blew me away. This is a tiny shop, located in a small farming community in a rural area, and it is filled with photo gear. From Speed Graphics to the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, these folks have a little of everything. Piles of used gear (literally), a surprising selection of lighting equipment new and old, even darkroom stuff, all stuffed (literally) into a two-story building in little ol' Dallas, Oregon. It was like going back in time, to what camera stores used to be before the age of big-box homogenization. I don't know if they do mailorder, but they're so accommodating I suspect they would. If you're looking for just about anything photographic, particularly if it's out of production and now hard to find, give them a call: (503) 623-6300.
I have no affiliation other than as a satisfied, if somewhat amazed, customer.
You may recall that I spent some time as a commercial photographer (and general photographic genius) back in the '80s. During that period I used a wide variety of cameras and lenses, and probably spent an amount exceeding the economies of several Caribbean nations on my vocation/avocation.
Over the next few Fridays, I'll be talking about some of the cameras I've used extensively, or have had close contact with, during my career. For those who lived through the end of the film era, this will be a trip down memory lane. For those who came of age after the digital revolution, here's your chance to hear what things used to be like. (For your benefit, I'll work in a solid rant at the end of the series.)
The camera I've chosen to start is one which even hard core photographers won't recognize: An obscure ICA 9x12cm folding field camera called the Universal Palmos. ICA was one of the four European photography/optics concerns which, in 1926, merged to form Zeiss-Ikon. (Zeiss also marketed a model called the Universal Palmos, but it paled in comparison to the ICA model.) The Palmos utilized 9x12cm sheet film, which was sometimes referred to as "the European 4x5."
The Universal Palmos was reminiscent of the company’s better known “Maximar” model, but had a longer double extension track. The track had two focus knobs, one for the back and one for the front. They could be used singly, but in combination would extend the bellows to the full length of 16”, allowing satisfying closeup shots. Once focused, the knobs could be pulled out to lock the track(s) in place. Even with the tracks fully extended, the camera was still rigid. A better large format field camera one could neither want, nor find. The terminally curious can download the 1925 ICA catalog and see a full description of the machine.
Like all ICA products, it was superbly built. The range of movements on the front standard were greater than any "press" camera, and it had sported a real rotating back. The focus and sliding/rising front controls were gear driven, and machined to incredibly close tolerances. There was no backlash or slop in any of the controls. The metal was finished in a deep, glossy black enamel and the controls were nickel plated.
The 9x12 film was a bit of a problem. While not unknown here in the U.S., it wasn't available in the wide variety of our own 4x5" format. Luckily the two formats are very close in size, and I was able to fabricate a clever adaptor that allowed me to attach a Graflok back while retaining the rotating feature of the camera. I was even able to use a Grafmatic film holder for the ultimate in rapid-fire large format photography!
A slightly larger problem was the lens mounting plate. It was a circular sheet metal affair, which sort of bayonetted into three pegs on the front standard. I was able to demount the old lens and mount a slightly more modern optic, and an acquaintance with a metal shop was kind enough to fabricate a second for me. The small lensboard was serious restriction on the size and maximum aperture of the lenses I could mount, but this was a field camera, not a studio tool - the slower optics weren't a hinderance in the great outdoors.
I shot more 4x5" film through the ICA than through all of my other large format cameras combined. It was handy, compact, superbly constructed of fine materials, and boasted capabilities that no contemporary field camera could match. The fact that I got it for less than $20 was just icing on the cake!
I usually eat my breakfast in front of the computer. I check my personal email, look in at Twitter and Facebook, read George Ure's blog, look at all the blog feeds to which I subscribe, and maybe even check what's for sale on Craigslist.
One of the Facebook updates this morning was from Rob Pincus, who is heading for Rochester (NY). That brought back memories, as in my former life I traveled to Rochester on an occasional basis, one time staying for the better part of two weeks. Astute readers will deduce that these trips had something to do with the Eastman Kodak Company (EKC, as it was known - Kodak was extremely fond of acronyms and abbreviations), and that deduction would be correct.
In the early- to mid-Eighties, which is when I visited, Kodak owned most of Rochester - and what they didn't, Xerox did. Kodak's facilities were huge even by Detroit standards, all based on sales of film and associated equipment and supplies. As digital photography eroded film's dominance, Kodak (which had been willfully dismissive of the digital threat throughout the period under discussion) saw their business decline precipitously.
Barely into the new century, Kodak was closing buildings at a rapid pace. They demolished a few, auctioned off some others, and sold what they felt they didn't need but which would still generate cash. One of the latter was a complex known as the Marketing Education Center, or - in EKC-speak - MEC.
MEC is where they held seminars, training sessions, and business meetings. Every time I went to Kodak, MEC is where I ended up. It was a gorgeous campus, looking more like a community college than a corporate office.
MEC sat next to the Genesee River, and featured a dining hall with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over the river and a placid meadow. The view from the tiered seating was so perfectly New England, regardless of the season, that visitors joked the windows were actually Duratrans - Kodak's trade name for large, backlit transparencies. The food was't bad, either!
This little trip down memory lane got me to wondering: whatever happened to MEC? As it turns out, pretty much nothing. Kodak cleared out and sold it for about $3.5 million to an investment concern in 2004, and it appears to be sitting vacant today. The campus, with 120 acres and four buildings, is currently for sale at an asking price of only $9.9 million.
P.S.: Speaking of acronyms...at one point Kodak decided to do some corporate reshuffling, and the technicians who serviced their large photofinishing and photocopying equipment were inexplicably transferred to the control of the newly renamed Consumer Equipment Service. At roughly the same time, those technicians were given the title of “Field Engineers.” The in-joke was that since they were now FEs, working for CES, that their corporate acronym was to be FECES. Upper management was not at all amused.
For many years I've wandered the Northwest visiting ghost towns and abandoned settlements, and always in the back of my mind are the unanswered questions: why did people leave? What was is like to live in a dying town? When did people finally figure out that their town was destined for the dust bin of history? Did it happen suddenly, or was it a slow, agonizing extinction?
These questions come to the forefront as I watch the continuing downfall of one of America's proudest cities.
I'm not saying that Detroit is going to disappear like, oh, Bourne (Oregon) did. It might, it might not. But it's clear that the city's contraction leaves much doubt about its future, and the glorious past of the former powerhouse remains to confront and confound the present residents.
Back in the early '80s, I lead small groups of advanced amateur photographers around the Portland, Oregon metro area at night. The goal was to teach them the fundamentals of available-light photography in an environment that was simultaneously familiar, yet unexplored. We'd gather at about 10:pm at a local Denny's, then head out for a few hours of shooting, usually getting home about 3:am.
Let me paint you a picture: say, 5 people. Camera bags stuffed with multiple thousands of dollars (in Reagan-era money) of easily pawned high-end camera equipment. Major urban center. At night. Sparse police presence. Before cel phones. Before SureFire flashlights. Even before our concealed handgun law.
Now I know what you're thinking, and in retrospect I agree with you. But it seemed like a great idea at the time!
The exact itinerary varied a bit, but a typical evening might find us wandering around the downtown core area, through alleys, construction sites, industrial areas, and perhaps even along the east side of the Willamette River. (Today area residents know it as the "EastBank Esplanade": a tribute to a ditzy mayor who was convinced the way to help "poor homeless people" was to build a boulevard for over-indulged yuppies to ride their bicycles between latte stops. Back then, though, it was just a rough industrial riverbank where bums set up camp once the longshoremen had gone home to dinner.)
These events were very popular - we always filled our limit of attendees - because they were, after all, the only way to get shots like this:
While some of the participants used fine-grained films, tripods and long exposures (giving me a chance to share with them the mysteries of reciprocity failure), others handheld their shots using fast films (often pushed in development) and fast lenses. Both approaches had their uses and limitations, and the facilitator (that would be me) had to be well versed in all of it - while simultaneously maintaining some sense of aesthetics. I'll gladly claim the former, and from the shot above you can judge if I have any business talking about the latter.
Today I wouldn't attempt such craziness without an armored personnel carrier and close air support, if at all. Back then, though, it was just us, our "steal me" bags, and lots of film. And the bums.
The LIFE website this week unveiled a photo retrospective of Project Mercury, America's first human spaceflight program. If you look at the picture captions, you'll notice one name on most of them: Ralph Morse. There's a good reason for that.
Ralph Morse was a staffer at LIFE (and later TIME) when he was assigned to cover a press conference in Washington in 1959. That event was the announcement of the Project Mercury astronauts. Sensing the long term importance of the announcement, Morse contacted his editor and told him that there would be a lot of public interest in these men. He suggested that the magazine assign someone permanently to NASA, which was then less than a year old. Morse got the job.
It was a good choice; Morse had already been with LIFE for over a decade, bringing back some of the most well known pictures in their archives. NASA was a fledgling agency, and Morse had gotten himself in on the ground floor of what would become the Space Race.
Over the next couple of decades, Morse would become an insider at NASA. He got exclusive access, and was even allowed to place his cameras in restricted areas his competition at NEWSWEEK couldn't even dream of. Along the way, he produced some of the most iconic images of the various NASA projects.
It all started at that press conference, where an idiot reporter (some things never change) asked the astronauts which of them expected "to come back alive." Morse grabbed this shot of the astronauts showing their mettle:
Some of his shots were very well known...
...while others weren't:
All of them, though, came from the camera of an inventive genius whose enthusiasm for his job knew no bounds. Were it not for his eye, his ingenuity, and his nose for news, we wouldn't have this great visual record of our nation's greatest achievements. George Hunt, at one time LIFE's Managing Editor, said “if LIFE could afford only one photographer, it would have to be Ralph Morse.”
Ralph is now 92, but unfortunately for us gave up photography some years ago.
I've featured a number of decay-chronicling websites, but this one is unique. onlynDetroit.com doesn't just show the deterioration of a once-proud city, it gives the why and how of urban decay. In its many pages you'll learn the stories behind the landmarks, where they came from and how they happened to get where they are today. Along with the analysis is the occasional prescription for renewal, and a happy ending or two as some eyesores get refurbished and reopened.
The photography isn't of the same standards as some urban exploration sites, spelling errors abound, and the text sometimes describes scenes for which there are no pictures - but those are minor quibbles that only help prove that the whole is greater than the sum if its parts. onlynDetroit.com is obviously the work of people who have great affection for their city despite its flaws, and the same can be said of their site. A great place to kill some free time.
Kodachrome They give us those nice bright colors They give us the greens of summers Makes you think all the world's a sunny day, Oh yeah I got a Nikon camera I love to take a photograph So mama don't take my Kodachrome away
Kodachrome wasn't the first time the company had influenced musical history, however. It's true that Kodachrome was invented by a couple of amateur chemists who were also professional musicians, but the influence I'm thinking of goes far deeper.
As it happens George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak, was an aspiring flutist and music fanatic. His love of making and listening to music led him to found the Eastman School of Music, cementing his place in American music history.
Now you're probably thinking "Eastman School of Music? Never heard of it!" Most people, when asked to name a prestigious music school, immediately think "Juilliard." While Juilliard is a fine school and better known to the general public, those with a deep knowledge of musical education will often quietly refer you to Eastman. Since 1921, Eastman graduates have enjoyed a solid reputation for being "musician's musicians", which persists to this day - it is often ranked as the top music school in the country in major media surveys.
George Eastman was a remarkable individual who also gave major grants to engineering and technical schools such as MIT, and involved himself in a range of social and business innovations. It could be argued, though, that giving the world both Kodachrome and Frederick Fennell would have been enough for any one person.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the Office of War Information (OWI) shot tens of thousands of photographs. The vast majority - and the images we most associate with their work - were in black and white:
However, there were a number of assignments which were shot in color. That number was far smaller, likely because of budget constraints, but produced some stunning images:
In 1936, an audacious Henry Luce changed the way we looked at the world. He took a staid publication, gave it a new, photojournalistic makeover, and created the legendary LIFE Magazine.
Luce hired the best photographers he could find, and sent them out to cover whatever was interesting - if not always the biggest story. LIFE became the must-read periodical for the next several decades, owing to a combination of superior illustration and good writing. People of my generation, and those of the previous one, can easily remember at least one great LIFE photo - if not a whole bunch. That's what LIFE was about, and it is not too great a stretch to say that LIFE defined American photojournalism.
Many of LIFE's photographers would become well-known, like Margaret Bourke-White...
...as well as many more whose names weren't as familiar, but were stupendous "shooters" in their own right. LIFE was THE gig to have, and it attracted (and got) the best talent.
Now, in the digital era, Google and TIME have teamed up to bring the entire LIFE photo archive to the web. The hundreds of thousands of images in the LIFE vault are being digitized and indexed by Google as fast as their scanners will scan. At this moment, only about 20% of the collection has been archived - but more photos are added every day, and they hope to be finished with the project in mere months.
The collection includes everything - photos that have been published, and those that haven't. You'll get to see images that didn't make the "cut", those that weren't good enough to be published, as well as those iconic images for which LIFE was so well known.
I've previously mentioned my appreciation for the work that NASA has done over it's 50-year history. NASA grew up right along with me - or me with it - and NASA was always doing the exciting stuff boys of that era were smitten by: Astronauts. Fast planes. Rockets. The Moon.
(It wasn't just spectacle, though; NASA was the catalyst for technological progress that continues to be felt today. A surprising number of the things we now take for granted can be traced directly back to some NASA project.)
We learned about the exploits of the engineers, technicians and astronauts through NASA-supplied pictures in the magazines of the day. My early interest in science was kindled by those pictures, and some of them I still remember.
NASA documented everything, but not all of their photos were of general interest. A large percentage of their images were never seen by the general public because the media was understandably reluctant to publish anything of interest only to nerds. Through the magic of the internet, however, we now have ready access to some of those great pictures.
The agency has launched a new site just for NASA images. You can search or browse and download your selected pictures, drawings, and illustrations - some of them of quite high resolution. You'll find lots of astronomical images, of course, but you'll find all kinds of other things too.
Two of my favorites from the 1969 launch of Apollo 11, taking the first men to the moon:
Saturn V rocket FTW!
If you're a science buff like me, you can spend large amounts of time on their site. I recommend that you not try this a) at work, or b) when your significant other expects you to be paying attention to him/her/the kids/household chores/your dinner guests. You have been warned!