My Love Affair with Bear

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Recently, when a writing app that I like transitioned to a subscription-based business model I decided to dive more deeply at Bear. Bear is an app that’s reminiscent of Evernote, except that I really like to use it. While I was a user of Evernote for years, I was never really a fan. It made for a good digital shoebox, but it never inspired me to write. Bear is different. It’s designed for note taking rather than acting as a drawer for information. That’s why I’ve grown to like it so much.

Bear has a beautiful, minimalist interface with clean typography that invites me to write. It’s so clean that it doesn’t even have a toolbar (some Mac users don’t like this trend of Mac apps looking like iOS apps, but I’m fine with it). For longer writing I still prefer Scrivener, but for short pieces like a blog post, Bear is perfect. It allows me to organize my information in a way that makes sense to me and doesn’t become cluttered.

One thing I enjoy, though hadn’t explored much before Bear, is the use of tags instead of folders. Folders move the document out of the InBox and into a specific folder while tags allow a document to live places. For this piece, for instance, I might list it under Mac, iOS, Shoebox, and who knows what else, and tags will allow the note to appear in all three places with no massaging. Folders, unless you use Apple’s Smart Folder, typically only allow a document live in one place. To get the most out of Bear you’re going to need to master tags. Here’s a good post to read.

Bear also comes with the ability to archive web pages, just as Evernote does. However, I’ve found that Bear’s ability to save a webpage is not as reliable as I’d like. It works most reliably using the macOS Safari plugin, and less so on iOS. Oftentimes when I want Bear to grab a website it fails and just grabs the link, or worse, nothing at all. That’s annoying.

What’s less annoying is that I don’t need to learn Markdown to use Bear. I’m a simple guy, so I’ve turned off the Markdown feature in preferences and use the app as a word processor. Bear is polite enough to take my command shortcuts and convert them to Markdown for me. So pressing command-I (italics) looks like /command-I/ on the screen. I love that behavior because I don’t want to learn another set of key commands beyond what I’ve already learned with Mac word processors.

Bear comes with several free themes, and when you upgrade to Pro (currently $14.99 a year or $1.49 a month) you’ll receive access to a pallet of themes. Going pro also lets your notes sync between all of your Macs and iOS devices. And honestly, even if I didn’t need the sync feature (I’m even less concerned about the themes) I’m happy to pay $14.99 a year to support Bear. One thing that’s become apparent over the last decade of buying software from an App Store is that free or too cheap isn’t a sustainable business model, and that good software needs to be paid for to survive. I want this Bear to stay around and innovate.

I don’t want to close this post without discussing marketing. Shiny Frog, the publisher of Bear, has done a great job of making Bear whimsical and fun through their graphics, update descriptions, and myriad other ways. When I create a new note Bear tells me to keep calm and write something. That personality that’s baked into the app is so much more fun than just having a blank note title appear. Bear invites creation and I love it.

And there are lots of other things to love about Bear, more than I can list, though one important one is the ability to export as DocX, HTML, and PDF among other formats. At a time when the average subscription price for an app seems to be $29.99 a year, the $14.99 annual fee is refreshing. As the subscription model gains traction, I’ve been carefully culling through my apps folder, deciding what to keep and what to discard. Bear is one app I plan to keep around for a long time.

To eBooks and Back Again

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Like many, I was passionate about the promise of eBooks. Two things were offered that I valued - ease of purchase, and a tiny footprint. Not only could I read purchased books immediately after downloading them, but I could fit a whole library within a device the size of paperback books and toss it in my backpack. Yet, particularly this past year, I’ve found myself passionately drawn back to paper bookstand disenchanted with ebooks. Like most traditional readers I like paper books for all the romantic reasons - smell, a great cover, the way a book feels in my hand - but the tipping point came from my frustration with Amazon.

I realized that I wasn’t alone after coming across the essay As We May Read earlier this week by Craig Mod. Craig had made some comments about eBooks and focus that caught my attention on one of my now favorite podcasts called Hurry Slowly. In it, he discussed the problems of attention, and how electric devices so often interrupt our flow of thought with their constant alerts, chimes, and burps.

That experience of interruption is one that commonly occurs when I’m reading on my iPhone and iPad. That’s why I switched to the Kindle. It wasn’t online and it didn’t interrupt my reading by alerting me to my latest text, email, or news item. Yet, although I found the Kindle’s e-ink display a delight, I found the rest of the experience to be mediocre.

The Kindle’s interface is clumsy, and most egregiously my Kindles (I tried several) would restart on its own to install new software, even while I was reading, completely destroying the magic created while reading. The experience, while less common, was more disruptive than reading on my iOS devices. I’ll take interruptions from iMessages any day over a forced rebook. Who designs software to do that?

Perhaps the most embarrassing part for me is that people would ask me what I was reading and often I couldn’t remember. That’s because of the Kindle, which merely acts as a container, does a bad job of differentiating one book from another. So inside the Kindle, Leslie Marmon Silko is no different than James Baldwin (iBooks tries to solve this problem by showing you the cover when you open a book, but I still find that ineffective). One book blurred into the next. Not knowing what I was reading was plain humiliating.

With paper books I’m constantly reminded of the title because I’m always seeing the cover, and because each book is different, not just the cover, but in dimension, width, texture, deckled edge (or not), and weight. 

That means that the Kindle’s now essentially dead to me. I’m still using the Kindle app on my iPad to sample books before buying the paper version, and I’ll read a portion of a book on my iPhone when I don’t have a paper book with me, but I’m no longer passionately interested in digital books, even those that are free. I’ve been spending months duplicating my best Kindle books with paper books, and while the space taken by bookcases is significantly more, and paper books aren’t as easy to transport, the payoff for switching back is undeniable.

In Praise of the iPhone 8’s Camera

There has been some raving on the interwebs about the camera in the iPhone 8/ iPhone X, and now I feel it’s well deserved. Although I’ve had my iPhone 8 Plus for a while now, I really hadn’t put its camera to the test until a recent early morning trip along California’s Highway 1. From the examples below I think the iPhone camera is pretty amazing. 

I’m not one to spend time with filters or adjustments, so these shots are unfiltered and modified only using Photos’ Enhance feature. 

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Stephen King's Movie It in Dallas, OR

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Movie theaters have grown as generic and homogenous as many other things in American culture. If you were magically dropped inside a theater you would find it difficult to tell one from the other. The only differences between modern theaters is the sound. The newer the room, the better the sound system it boasts. So you get a super boring room with THX or Dolby 12 (or whatever it's up to now) sound. 

Frankly, I don't care about sound. I'd rather have a theater with personality that doesn't have the fancy Dolby or THX sound than a boring theater with these sound systems. That's why my favorite theaters in Portland are the Living Room Cinemas; spacious pre-assigned seating, lots of leg room, and you can order meals and have them served to you in your seat while you're screening the movie. It doesn't get better than that. But it can get as good.

Last Sunday I attended the Renaissance Faire in Corvallis, and afterwards we decided to see It by Stephen King. Neither of our phones had signal at the faire so we drove into Dallas, a city of wonderful architecture, to see where the film was playing. By luck, it was playing at the Dallas Cinema (yes, I didn't notice it at the time, but that's cinema, singular).

We arrived to find a line already forming. As we listened we learned that some high school students had screened the film the night before and liked it so much that they were back to see it again, which was a relief.

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Film adaptations of Stephen King's work are more miss then hit. Take The Dark Tower that I screened several weeks ago. I'm told that the books, which I assume are inspired by Robert Browning's poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came (and I encourage anyone unfamiliar with Browning to read Porphyria's Lover on a stormy, thundery night), are some of King's best, but the movie is utterly forgettable, even painful. I barely sat through the whole thing, so knowing that these people ahead of us were here for a second viewing was a good sign.

As we waited, one of the doors to the theater partially opened and a clown appeared, to the gasp of some of us in the line. The door closed and the clown disappeared, only to reappear in a window, or another door, until he finally walked outside. This was a tremendous moment for me because you don't see big theaters doing fun stuff like this, and this extra touch contributed immensely to the ambiance of the film. 

Once inside we saw that the theater held a surprising number of seats, I mean the gladiators didn't have this many seats in their stadiums, though everyone bunched up in the middle, creating a community. And it was the kind of community you wanted for a horror movie. The crowd laughed as a group, grew tense as a group, and very few people checked their phones. I did, however, check out the gorgeous art deco lighting along the walls during slow points, which added more ambiance to the film.

Of It I'll say very little except that you should go see it, and avoid The Dark Tower. And if you can, see it in a theater with personality instead of one of those new cookie-cutter Cineplex things. The film will just seem better. 

How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom

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Some find dismissing Harold Bloom easy due to his politics. He’s one of the few college professors who still believes in a literary canon: a primarily white, male literary canon; and who believes that books can teach us about life and living. These beliefs defy the currently held philosophy of many English departments. When I mentioned a few years ago on Facebook that I was reading Bloom, one of my former instructors admitted that he couldn’t get through Bloom’s books because he found them so politically offensive. As can be expected, Bloom’s How to Read and Why is no different.

When one reads How to Read and Why, one is reading a love letter to literature similar to Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick, or Christopher R. Beha’s The Whole Five Feet. It is clear that the texts that Bloom has chosen those he is most passionate about, and the glee with which he shares them with the reader is that of a child showing off their favorite Hot Wheels.

For, to Bloom, the texts that he recommends in this book are the best of the best. Thoreau says, “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all,” and these are the texts on Bloom’s “first read” list. He suggests that everyone (within western culture, I think it’s fair to say) read them, and he offers a summation and an argument in favor of each one.

He also insists on beautiful writing, which is also currently unpopular. I remember working in a bookstore where one of my managers, who was a huge science fiction fan, said he didn’t care about the quality of writing, only the ideas presented. Nothing could be more antithetical to Harold Bloom, who insists that the caliber of writing meet as high a standard as the story itself before it can be recommended.

The formula for reading that Bloom recommends is a combination of Bacon, Johnson, and Emerson: “Find what comes near to you that can be put to the use of weighing and considering, and addresses you as though you share the one nature, free of time’s tyranny” (22).

In approaching literature he recommends that you free your mind of cant (23), which is to say personal bias: let each text speak for itself. I always think of this approach as Matthew Arnold’s Disinterestedness. Let the text speak to you--don’t let your bias speak to the text. As he says, “To read in the service of any ideology is not to read at all.”

Why read? Self-improvement. But don’t try to improve your neighborhood, cautions Bloom. Improving the self is enough. Quoting Shakespeare to a loved one at just the right moment might lead to more passion. Quoting Shakespeare to your neighbor during an argument might also lead to more passion - as in a fist in your mouth. Stick to using literature for the improvement and strengthening of the self.

We should also read, he tells us, because we can only know a few people intimately. Good literature allows us to know more. Important characters for us to know are found in both archaic and contemporary texts: Bloom recommends classics like Moby Dick, Hamlet, Leaves of Grass, and Emma, and newer texts such as The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

One might be tempted to skip past his older recommendations for more modern ones, but it’s important to remember that reading great thinkers leads to great thought. One need only read Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman and compare it to The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. Carr freely acknowledges that he was inspired by Postman’s text (and I also recommend Postman’s Technopoly), but when you compare the two side by side, you see a key difference in the quality of thought. Postman’s analysis is far richer, and I believe that comes from his reading of great texts: he quotes from Plato and other sources. Carr, not so much. This comparison shows why Bloom encourages reading the best texts.

Just as Bloom reads the these books critically, we should read Bloom critically. Bloom observes that Tolstoy valued Uncle Tom's Cabin over King Lear; James Baldwin, in his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” convincingly explains why Uncle Tom’s Cabin isn’t a great novel. Though I don’t believe that Bloom hoists Uncle Tom’s Cabin over Lear, I wonder about his inclusion of Tolstoy’s preference, and I worry for Tolstoy.

But this is a minor issue. How to Read and Why is an exciting text that makes no apologies for what it is: a love letter to literature intended to excite others to learn to love literature as well.

If You Don't Like Something, Change It- Maya Angelou

Barry Lopez, in his essay “Learning to See”, tells the story of losing all his photographs while riding his motorcycle to see an editor. Lopez, we learn in the essay, was a published photographer earlier in his life as well as a writer, and that event combined with later ones led him to choose writing over photography. 

I’ve struggled for some time between writing and photography. One of the difficulties I have with photography is that the it comes between me and the world. Photography, as Robert Adams notes, sometimes has a way of replacing people’s experiences. We pile off of the bus, turn away from the very landscape or monument we stopped to look at, and have our picture taken (or now, more commonly, we use our self stick), and then get on the bus and drive away. We forget to actually have the experience we intended to have because we’re too busy memorializing it to show friends later. And even when that’s not the case, at the very least the camera creates a barrier between us and what we see.

Recently I’ve had an event similar to Lopez’s motorcycle incident which has caused me to reevaluate the role of photography in my life. Like him, I feel the competition between photography and writing, and I’ve watched how the two effect my experiences. While I love photography, I’m now finding writing a more rewarding path. My experiences without the camera are far more interesting than with it. I actually see more without the camera.

As a result, there will be some changes in this blog. You’ll see some writing and snapshots from my travels, opinions on what Apple is doing, and book reviews from what I’m reading. From there things should evolve organically.

Near Fisk Mill Cove, 2016

Near Fisk Mill Cove, 2016, 8x10 Platinum/Palladium Contact Print

Near Fisk Mill Cove, 2016, 8x10 Platinum/Palladium Contact Print

One of my fascinations with Salt Point is the constantly morphing landscape. From one season to the next, one year to the next, the sandstone doesn’t remain the same. The rain erodes, the sea erodes, the wind erodes, the forces of change are never ending. Recently, I’ve seen the location of another photograph of mine fall into the ocean and disappear, taking a rather large field of tafoni with it. 

I expect that this image, taken near Fisk Mill Cove, will be around for some time. The day of this image was overcast, and I was hesitant to take photographs out of fear that the sandstone, sea, and sky would all be too monotone. I shouldn’t have been hesitant. I have a platinum/palladium print that has a marvelous glow to it, and wonderful, long, nuanced tones.

Although the landscape in this image seems stable, directly behind where I was standing, the sandstone is being pushed beneath the sea, and more and more is falling into the ocean. How much will disappear? I don’t know, but each time I visit the situation appears more and more perilous, and the angle grows steeper and steeper.

As the large stones roll into the sea they create new photo opportunities, even as standing along the edge becomes more precarious. I can’t wait to go back.

Making Photographs and Pema Chödrön’s “Three Conscious Breaths”

 

As a born-again sitter, I find that meditation plays a number of roles in my life. It helps me improve my concentration, regulate my mood, and relieve my body of stress. Meditation also makes me a stronger photographer.

As I’ve noted previously in this blog, I’m drawn to large format photography over other formats due to its meditative qualities. Nothing happens fast with LF, whether in the field or in the darkroom, and the more impatient you grow, the more disaster you court and the more your day will be ruined.

But there are times when, regardless of intention, we’re frazzled when we pull out the camera, and that can spell catastrophe later. We set our exposure wrong, we forget to meter at all, fail to stop down the lens before releasing the shutter, or to load the holder with film- the possibilities for LF disasters are endless.

One solution is Pema Chödrön’s three conscious breaths. Also known as pause practice, it works by creating space between whatever it is that has you frazzled, so that you can stop thinking about it and focus on the task at hand. Just stop and take three conscious breaths. Then climb underneath the dark clothe and look at the ground glass.

(I may have gotten this site from another photo blog which I now can't find. If so, please let me know so that I can credit them.)

But what if your monkey mind won’t take the hint and leave you alone? Here’s a great breathing technique I’ve learned from the Calm app on my iPhone that I love. Breath in for a four count, hold your breath for a four count, and breath out for an eight count.

Using this technique for three breaths leaves me feeling light headed enough that my monkey mind isn’t a problem anymore, but not so light headed that I can’t function.

Give either technique a try if you find that distractions interfere with your photography and keep you from a state of beginner's mind. 

Near Pescadero, CA

8x10 Platinum/Palladium Contact Print

8x10 Platinum/Palladium Contact Print

Near the town of Pescadero in California lies a beach known as Bean Hollow, which I have visited often. As I wandered along there one afternoon, photographing along a fairly ordinary (though there really is no such thing as ordinary along the California coast) shoreline, a man approached me and suggested that I try another nearby area where the rocks and formations were "completely different" from what I was seeing now.

Although it was a ways away (and I was a bit sceptical), I packed up my gear and took a look. What I saw astounded me. This was an area of great variation in a small region. There was tafoni, sand, seaweed, rocks that had collided with each other, different shapes and textures, all the drama that I look for as a photographer. Since then, whenever I've been near Pescadero I've made sure to photograph this spot.

On the day that I made this photograph, the fog hung along the shoreline, moving in and out of the coast, often obscuring the sun, and cooling things off enough that I wondered if I made a mistake by not wearing my coat. I'd photographed some sea grass moments earlier, and was enjoying listening to the soft chortle of the low tide against the rocks. Because of the tide and soft light I had plenty of time to work, and I have many images from this day that I'm excited by.

This image of the tafoni took a while to compose. As a large format photographer who does contact prints, I don't crop. That means the image had to be correct in the ground glass. I particularly struggled with getting the balance right with the figure in the lower right. As I was composing, the fog's movement in and out caused the light to shift from hard to soft and back again. When everything was right I released the shutter and captured this image.

Platinum/Palladium Printing

"Near Fisk Mill Cove, 2016". 8x10 Platinum/Palladium contact print.  

"Near Fisk Mill Cove, 2016". 8x10 Platinum/Palladium contact print.  

Over this past summer I read through Fred Picker's Zone VI newsletters and came to realize how long we photographers have been complaining about our materials. (It's likely that everyone since Daguarre has been complaining about not getting rich enough blacks and muddy whites in their prints.) Picker, writing in the '70s and '80s, groused of how all the good photo papers were disappearing and of not being able to find good cameras anymore, and on and on.

While I'm not comfortable saying that there aren't any good films or papers available anymore, I am struck by how a feeling of future shock has affected analog film photography. Previously one could expect to use a certain film or paper for a decade or longer, and truly get to know and understand it. Not any more. Given the current climate, I don't know that I can rely on any film available today, particularly large format film, to be available in a decade. Perhaps, perhaps not. The same with photographic paper.

With these concerns in mind, and with the frustration that I wasn't happy with the quality of silver gelatin papers either, I trodded down the dangerous path of the silver bullet hunt that many never escape from.

Because of good mentorship I landed on platinum/palladium printing.

Platinum/Palladium prints are known for their long tonal values and delicate highlights. They're ridiculously expensive to make, and I find that I like double-crossing the best, which increases the cost even more. Some suggest that double-coating gives richer blacks, but I'm better tonal scale throughout the whole image. And while the paper that I use, Arches Platina, may go away (Pl/Pd printers mix and coat the emulsion on the paper themselves), at least l have more control in choosing another paper than with premade gelatine silver papers.

Platinum prints come in two flavors these days - those printed with digital negatives and those printed with in-camera negatives. A digital negative may be made from a from a digital capture or a scanned negative, while an in-camera negative means that the prints was made directly from the film that was in the camera. I only print from in-camera negatives.

Most importantly, with Platinum/Palladium printing my images have never looked better.

Shore Acres

A snapshot of Shore Acres taken with my iPhone

A snapshot of Shore Acres taken with my iPhone

The weather wasn’t what I expected when I arrived at Shore Acres. Although I grew up in an area known for its microclimes, usually I could expect the weather to be the same where I was and an hour and a half from where I was. So when the forecast at home showed a clear day, I jumped in my car and drove an hour-plus to Cape Arago to make photographs without a second thought. I should have known better.

This winter has seen over 90 inches of rainfall, and it clearly wasn’t through with me yet. Last week four inches of snow fell (the second snowfall of the year), and today, just after I set up my camera, more rain came. I draped my new homemade dark clothe over my camera and kept it dry. I, on the other hand, having only worn fleece and leaving my raincoat at home, got wet. Yet in a sense, that is how it should be. The prize attained too easily doesn’t taste as sweet once won.

The falling rain dampened the scent of salt water and replaced it with iron. It also dampened the sound, so that rather than hearing sea against shore, I heard raindrops against stone and leaves. After about fifteen minutes the rain stopped and a soft light broke through the clouds to cradle the sandstone, and Shore Acres looked different than it had on any of my previous visits. The rain gave the sandstone an appearance of softness that looked like wet clay that had just been sculpted.

I’m often asked what my favorite type of light is, and I don’t have an answer. Perhaps the question is more important to color photographers than those of us who shoot black and white. Each type of light causes me to see something new that I wouldn’t otherwise recognize, and to compose the image differently. In hard light I use the shadows to move the eye throughout a photograph, but in soft light like this, I use the highlights to guide the eye. In either light one sees new things, and that’s what’s most important. What I was seeing was fresh and different from what I expected.

I’ve known photographers who have visited here before me, and one of the joys I find is finding their images in the stone, seeing where they stood, and where they placed their tripods. Often those scenes are easily recognizable, such as an image Michael A. Smith took of his wife as she was taking a photograph, while at other times I only see an echo of the other image from the corner of my eye. Over time I’ve come to realize many of the old images are hard to find because the landscape has changed, or the subject may even have been wiped out because of the malleability of the sandstone and the harshness of the weather, like a word that has been erased from a page and then written over.

Because of the weather and the time of year, there were almost no visitors at Shore Acres, and I was able to photograph with my 8x10 camera for nearly four hours in a meditative state, listening to the sea and smelling the salt air. It was the combination of the rising wind and a second rain that finally convinced me to leave. Today tasted sweet, indeed.

Along The Smith River

A snapshot taken with my iPhone

A snapshot taken with my iPhone

 

I first traveled beside the Smith River in Oregon while taking a poorly considered route to California.The route was poorly considered because I’d chosen the long way. And I mean the long way. But it let me see new landscape, including that along the beautiful Smith.

Because it’s in a fairly steep canyon, photographing along the Smith can be tough, since the light is hard to predict and it’s a long drive from where I live. I prefer the subtle glow of overcast light there, which draws out the geometry of the trees and adds a richness to their leaves. But beyond lighting one is challenge by road conditions and trying to find a place to pull over and safely take pictures. One drives in fits and starts along HWY 199, and finding a good place to safely pull over can be tough.

I’ve seen some pull over and hike down to the Smith’s banks, but I’ve always been afraid that with all my photo gear I might not make it back up. Still, as there are some remarkably gorgeous rocks on the banks, I’m trying to find a way to safely scurry down there. 

This snapshot was taken with my iPhone on my second photo visit to the Smith,  in the soft light that I prefer, and I exposed both 4X5 and 8X10 negatives while there. I’m looking forward to visiting again soon.

The Oregon Coast

A snapshot taken with my phone

A snapshot taken with my phone

Oftentimes we assume that other lands look like our own. That’s what I assumed as I journeyed from California to Oregon, a seemingly short trip that exposed me to a large transition.

The Oregon coastline differs markedly from California. I suppose I should have expected this, but for whatever reason I thought the entire coast north of Eureka would remain the same. As I drove along the sinuous highway over the Oregon border, I knew immediately that I was mistaken. I realized that the images of agriculture that I’d grown so used to seeing along California roads had disappeared, replaced by scenes of imposing tress lining the highway like sentinels. And I was struck by the changes in the sea stacks. Where previously I was used to seeing jagged, angry sea stacks that seemed to stand in defiance of nature, I now saw curved stacks blending into the landscape that reminded me of hills that had made their homes in the sea. 

But all is not harmonious. While here I visit places with powerful names such as “The Devil’s Punchbowl”, and “The Devil’s Churn”, whose titles provoke images of conflict and confrontation of no smaller proportion than Odysseus’s battle with Poseidon. Yet it’s the small, unknown beaches that have the most interesting subjects for my camera. At these smaller, seemingly innocuous areas I walk for hours photographing, while also avoiding crowds. These rocks are sharp and angular, yet somehow also rounded and smooth. The contradiction draws me in, inviting deeper consideration and exploration. I grow lost in time. Somehow I need to find a way to capture and harmonize this angular yet rounded quality on film.

However, these formations aren’t all that catches my attention. I also notice the black, chocolate, and gold color of the rocks mixes together to form the perfect photographic ground with which I can photograph the figure of dead crustaceans or bleached shells. These designs create endless compositions that lead to a photographic cornucopia that are exactly what I was hoping to find when I travelled here. That is not to say that the photographs come easily, only that through wandering with my camera, listening to the sound of the sea, and stealing away from the sound of humankind do the opportunities make themselves known.

When the Computer is the Artist

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Years ago I came across a post online that asked what was going to happen to photography once computers became so powerful that anyone could choose a filter and turn their images into ones that looked like Ansel Adams.  The post, made (as I recall) by someone who was very tech savvy, wasn’t an idle question, because he knew where computers were taking digital photography, and it raised some interesting ideas about the future of art and technology, not the least of which was what happens to art when technology makes everyone a passable artist? 

I was reminded of this post by a picture I recently took with my phone at the Self-Realization Meditation Gardens in Encinitas. Images that I take with my phone are usually more to record where I am when I’m shooting with my 8x10 camera or looking for a shot to upload to Instagram. These pictures often aren’t the most inspired, and are intended more to let people know what I’m doing rather than as a piece of art on their own. 

One image (below) I took while at the gardens was of the sea with some surfers. It’s pretty banal, really, and not even Instagram material. But my photos are stored on Google Photos, and occasionally Google Photos will grab one of my images and apply effects on its own to show off its machine learning, and then ask me if I want to save the new version. I’ve found each image that Photos has customized interesting, so I’ve saved them, though I’ve never felt that one was better than the original.

Until now.

The image at the top of this post is Google Photo’s interpretation of my banal image. Not only is the picture converted to black and white, but the edges are burned, the contrast adjusted to draw out the clouds, and the image is cropped. Frankly, Google’s image looks damn good, far better than mine. At the same time, I don’t consider Google interpretation to be my photo since I didn’t adjust it, nor do I consider it Google’s. Would it be ours jointly, or neither of ours? I can’t be sure.

I’m not too concerned, though about Photos showing me up. This is luck, not artistry. Around the same time as it interpreted the above image, Google Photos automatically created a slideshow of a trip I took on Memorial Day. That trip started with a photo of a fellow veteran’s headstone at the National Cemetery near Davis, and so did Google’s upbeat slideshow. Artificial intelligence still isn’t all that intelligent. 

The Stockton Vietnam Memorial

I was recently discussing the future of the Vietnam Memorial Project with the wife of my friend who had inspired it, and I admitted that I’d realized that, as I was catching my second wind, it felt unlikely that I would capture all of the memorials in California because they are constantly changing. Some had been stolen and replaced, while new ones were being erected, most often in high schools. How prescient our discussion proved since the next memorial I rephotographed, in Stockton, had changed since my last visit.

The Stockton Vietnam Memorial has been of special interest to me since I spoke with one of the members of the steering committee of the Capitol Vietnam Memorial in Sacramento who worked with B.T. Collins in fund raising and other areas, and who specifically mentioned the striking number of names that were listed from Stockton. It was then that I knew the Stockton memorial was one I wanted to visit quickly.

When I first visited the memorial I couldn’t help but notice that it was weathered and in a state of disrepair. I also noticed that there was something inviting about the memorial, because people touched it as they walked by. Particularly children. I photographed it with my 4x5 camera and went deeper into town and bought a hot dog from a vender who turned out to be a Navy veteran.

When I arrived this time with my 8x10 camera, I was surprised to see that the old memorial was replaced with this new one. This modern one is as gorgeous as the previous memorial, and I’m glad that it retains the same general shape of the last memorial. Color is a new addition, and this memorial faces the opposite direction, so the viewer faces towards the the road and library rather than the park when viewing it. That means that there is more room for crowds to stand during events. A dried wreath remained leaning against the monument from memorial day, which I kept in place for the photograph.

A Systematic Derangement of the Senses

I am often asked, even by those who understand why I choose film over digital, why I choose the view camera over something smaller. Smaller formats, especially medium format combined with a film like Fuji Acros gives images of startling quality. And some cameras, such as the Rollei SL66, offer some movements. But none of them offer the ground glass, which is the large format cameras greatest advantage.

Looking through the ground glass for the first time can be a shock, because it sees the world upside down and reversed from the way we do. This defamiarizing of the common is the large format photographer's strength, because everything one sees is new, allowing one to see with beginner's mind. What seems like a pile of rocks next to a river when seen through the naked eye suddenly becomes a collection of geometric shapes when viewed through the ground glass, as do parking lots, city buildings, etc. 

Rimbaud referred to this experience as a systematic derangement of the senses, the moment when you stop seeing things as you think you see them (by labelling them) and see them as they are. 

Years ago I spoke with master photographer (and one of my mentors) Paula Chamlee, who was helping me under the dark clothe with composition, about this. As a new large format photographer I had run into an embarrising problem. All the literature I read from Ansel Adams said "previsualize, previsualize, previsualize," and that had become the large format mantra to many. The problem I found was that I would stop to take one photograph, say of a tree, set my camera on the tripod, look through the ground glass, and find a much more interesting image in the grass that it was pointed at, instead of the tree. So interesting that I didn't bother with that boring tree that excited me enough to pull out all my equipment moments earlier. Not always, but too often to ignore. And as importantly, I found this moment of discovery exciting. 

So I sheepishly asked Paula if there were times when she found more exciting photographs from just setting her camera up and looking through the ground glassthan photographing the image that first interested her. She paused for a moment, looked at me, and said with her soft southern accent "Well goodness, yes." Reading her journal entries in her monograph Natural Connections: Photographs by Paula Chamlee one sees her often discussing this issue with herself. 

Those moments of discovery are what I find exciting about using large format. Charis Wilson wrote in California and the West that she had grown used to looking at Edward Weston's ground glass and seeing things right side up. I'm fortunate in that I've never had that handicap. I still see everything upside down and backwards when I look slip underneath the dark clothe, and I hope that never changes.

Cathedral Gorge

A snapshot taken with my iPad.

A snapshot taken with my iPad.

When I first visited Cathedral Gorge over a year ago, it was a hot October that seemed to discourage many of the visitors. Few ventured beyond the areas within driving distance, and even those camping seemed to stay near their camp sites. I took my 4x5 Toyo 45G (the camera I was using at the time) and hiked a miles long trail that took me along the base of the Gorge's stunning formations eroded in bentonite clay. But the trail kept hikers from getting too close to the of the park, and I found the experience unsatisfying, as evidenced by the lackluster photographs that I took.

This visit was different. Rather than an overheated October, I faced an unexpectedly wet April. I left Las Vegas knowing that rain was forecast, but hoping for clear skies. Instead dark clouds loomed as I drove along Highway 93 to the Gorge. 

After setting up my campsite I grabbed my Green Monster 8x10, returned to a spot I noted while driving in, and began shooting. I hadn't taken more than two shots before feeling raindrops (though good shots they were). After stowing my gear back in my car, I retreated to a nearby gas station and ate lunch while looking out the window at the rain, and listening to the locals complain about the weather.

The next day was touch and go – light rain, heavy rain, no rain with very soft light. During those periods of no rain I was able, in a way that I hadn't during my first visit, to satisfyingly explore Cathedral Gorge. Not only did I walk the base areas but also some of the trails above. Often I had to break down my equipment and retreat to my car, but the rain was inconsistent enough that I was able to keep shooting. Because of the weather there were few visitors, and I left early the next morning with only two sheets of film unexposed.

I think I'll be back again soon.

Near Morongo Valley

A snapshot taken with my iPad.  

A snapshot taken with my iPad.  

John Sexton tells a story in an interview where he was riding with Brett Weston to Point Lobos to make photographs. All of a sudden Weston pulls the car over, jumps out, and starts photographing some detritus left out for garbage pick up. Sexton says that before that moment he thought that photography was going to start when they reached Point Lobos, and after that moment he learned to always be ready.

Sexton's story came to mind as I was traveling to Barstow to photograph their Vietnam Memorial. I choose a route that I hadn't taken before and ended up stop three times to make photographs, knowing that the delay might interfere with my images in Barstow. The second shoot in particular proved long.

Driving near Morongo Valley I came upon several mounds of rocks which had graffiti all over them. I drove several past them, decided that I had to make photographs, and returned. I pulled off the road, unpacked my Green Monster 8x10, and began making photographs. The texture from the rocks from the direct high sunlight added to the message of the graffiti. Had I returned another day it's likely these images wouldn't have been visible to me. I found example after example interesting, and it wasn't until an hour and a half later that I packed up to leave.

The lighting wasn't right when I arrived in Barstow, but the images I captured along the way there made the drive worth it.

The Alta Loma High School Vietnam Memorial

A snapshot taken with my iPad

A snapshot taken with my iPad

When I first began researching California Vietnam Memorials over 15 years ago for this project, there were only a few shown on the internet. As odd as it seems now, the internet at the turn of the century wasn't a place that had nearly the information that it has today (which is both good and bad, Sturgeon's law being what it is).

Because there was so little online, I ordered books through the university library, and learned that there were a few outdated books available about the memorials, and nothing current. None of them listed the memorial at Sonoma State University. One of the books listed the Vietnam Memorial at Alta Loma High School in Rancho Cucamonga, and I immediately became fascinated. It was the only high school memorial listed in the texts I had.

(Vietnam memorials at high schools have been increasing, which I find very interesting. Two of the newest memorials in the state, one being in San Rafael, have been in high schools.)

Since the Alta Loma High School memorial was the first high school memorial I learned of, it's always been special to me. The first time I photographed it, the image didn't work. The second time, I met with the school security officer there who was also a veteran of Desert Storm. Though that image was fine, it didn't work once I moved the project to 8x10.

This time when I visited the memorial it was a weekend and quiet, as expected. What I didn't expect is that the beautiful red roses would be in full bloom. The wind was still (finally!), and I set up the Green Monster to make my shot. There was a shift, and a small wind arose as I focused, shaking the flags and blossoms, though it wasn't bad. When the moment was right I made the exposure. 

Listed on the memorial are the seven graduates of Alta Loma High School who died in Vietnam. A gold and black plaque at the top left lists the graduate who died in Operation Enduring Freedom. 

At the base of the memorial, not readable in the photograph is a poem.

To youth life is forever –

Death never

These gave their lives

So freedom could be forever

The Mormon Rocks

A snapshot taken with my iPad

A snapshot taken with my iPad

I came upon the Mormon Rocks as suddenly as one comes upon a storm of sleet. While driving to Palm Springs to stay in a friend's time-share for a week, my map program routed me through the Mojave instead of I-5. Clearly traffic through The 5 was a mess again. As I drove through the Mojave, I found myself so far east that I considered breaking off and spending time at Red Rock Canyon, but thought better of it. 

As I drew closer to Palm Springs I passed through these rocks that looked like they were made of cake icing that had been laid on one layer at a time, the first layer allowed to harden before the second was applied, and so on until finally there were these rocks that almost looked like a pliable liquid, or a tan candy several stories high, ready to shift their shape for any reason. 

I immediately fell in love.

Although I hoped to return to the Mormon Rocks while I was staying at Palm Springs, the weather was hotter than expected, and I did very little shooting. But now I found time to return.

Traffic was worse than I expected (a perennial issue I have), and I arrived later than hoped. I quickly realized that there were two different sets of rocks to explore depending on which side of the street I chose. I went for the smaller group of rocks where there were fewer people. These rocks looked like they were straight out of a science fiction movie, and I wouldn't be surprised if they've they've been in a film or twelve. There was a fairly strong wind blowing which meant that I would need to photograph the rocks, not the greenery, since it was moving. 

My first shots were from ground level, then I began climbing with the Green Monster 8x10 until I ended up on the southern most rock. There the wind was gusting the hardest, and at one point actually started walking the camera and tripod towards the edge of the rock and the 100+ foot drop. With a 14lb camera, a 2.5lb lens, and a 10lb tripod, that's no small feat. Nor was walking back to my car.

I plan on returning soon and photograph where there are more rocks on the other side of the road, hopefully in less wind.