No Breaks

Beep beep screeches the voice
Behind me as I walk
Down Burnside towards Portland proper

No breaks explains the rider
As he passes by
Grinding his converse black and white
High top tennis shoes
Across the wet sidewalk

Hoping to slow his bicycle
Barreling downhill

Into darkness

 

 

 

The Grand Canyon

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While I was a freshman in high school, my family traveled across the country to visit relatives in the south. These years were a time of great journeys for me. I flew with friends throughout the Yucatan in a small plane (landing in airfields protected by people carrying submachine guns), a trip to Kawaii, myriad small trips, and this trip to the south. We left in a Winnebago Indian motorhome that my parents had recently bought and headed for Route 66.

I look back on my parents during this period and realize that this was a time of great optimism for them. To them, The Winnebago was freedom, both literally and symbolically, a sign that they had entered (or perhaps that they were merely trying on the clothes of) the leisure class. It had been used for weekend trips to the coast, longer trips to California’s Blue Lakes, and occasional sojourns in between. Some trips were a few days, while others lasted a week. On all of those trips, they made new friends, which seemed to be their real goal. The traveling was a necessity. Meeting someone new was where the true fun of life lie.

So in December, the Winnebago packed with clothes, food, homework (the trip was so long that I would miss a few weeks of school), we headed East, my parents sitting in the great Captain’s Chairs in front, and I sitting in back as far as possible away from them (I was a freshman, after all), reading, listening to Grand Funk Railroad, and looking out the window. One of the first stops that I recall was the Grand Canyon. 

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I owned one camera back then - a Yashica 44. It was an unusual camera, tannish grey in color, taking square pictures, and using 127 film, which I typically had to special order. The Yashica was what was called a “Twin-Lens Reflex”, meaning that the lens you focused with sat above the lens that exposed the film. It was sold to me by a friend in eighth grade and was my first real camera, a step up from the Kodak Handle (Polaroid later sued Kodak for patent infringement, and the Handle was taken off the market), because of its glass lenses, as opposed to the Handle’s plastic one, and the Handle’s poor prints. The lens on the Yashica was slightly wide, making distant landscapes difficult to shoot, but it fit my needs. 

It was stormy that year, requiring that chains be put on and taken off the motorhome. As we made our way through Reno, one of the chains broke on the passenger rear tire, splintering a hole in the Winnebago’s body that allowed the ambient air and water to enter, and the back interior of the motorhome would accumulate ice for the remainder of the trip, and I would remain rolled up in a comforter.

When we arrived at the Grand Canyon, which I recall being our first important stop, it was snowing and mystical. One thinks that pictures do justice, but they don’t. Pictures never give you the scent, the tufts of wind, the feeling of smallness as one looks down at the immensity of the canyon. All of these are lost in photographs, yet I photographed when I arrived there anyway, image after image. If photographs are a poor imitation of an experience, at least they are some sort of an imitation of the experience to help one remember. It is impossible not to make art as a response to being there. 

I still have the photographs in a photo album, preserved all these years, along with pictures of my cousins at Eagle Lake, Iris that my mother grew, and myriad other subjects, things I might have forgotten had I not taken my snapshots. I believe that I even have a picture of the Winnebago somewhere… 

Last week I made my second journey to the Grand Canyon. I’d done some volunteer work in Southern California, slipped into Arizona to see friends, and chose a path home specifically to see the Canyon. There was no snow, no promise of a higher adventure afterward, just a stop on my way home. I’d been wanting to visit for a while, asking a friend who’s a river guide for tips, and this proved to be my perfect opportunity. Nothing had changed. The Canyon was guest to many visitors from other nations. Some stood in front of the gaping trench with selfie-sticks, and I often heard visitors offer to photograph other visitors. The beauty of the place had brought people together, made them accommodating of each other, in contrast to most of America right now.

The sun was bright, and there were no clouds.

I walked up and down the rim taking pictures, just as I’m sure I did on my previous visit so many years ago. The sun was low on the horizon, and I often used shadows as central elements in my compositions. The experience was magical.

Next time I’ll go down to the bottom.

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.

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. 

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 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.

Live A Great Story - The Salton Sea

A snapshot taken with my iPad

A snapshot taken with my iPad

Upon arriving at the Salton Sea you might think that the smell comes from the (probably) thousands of skeletons of fish that encircle the water. But with the passing of time you'll come to realize that the smell comes from everywhere, the skeletons, the earth, the plants - perhaps even from the train that passes by on seemingly regular intervals. That smell is just there, ALL THE TIME.

I arrived on my second visit to the Salton Sea late in the afternoon, and waded through the smell. The Friday afternoon drive east from the coast took longer than expected, and I decided to delay setting up my tent so that I could shoot with the hour of light that remained. As I drove south I came across a series of rocks that looked very interesting, but were too far for me to hike to in time. So I continued driving.

Then I came across a nearly deserted town, which is nothing unusual. At the Salton Sea it seems that all towns are nearly deserted; only the most committed people remain. Driving through I stumbled on what appeared to be a fantasy movie shoot, where a sorcerous was casting spells and freezing her enemies. The Salton landscape made the perfect setting, and they were wearing great costumes. 

A short ways from the film shoot I found an abandoned home carrying the sign "Live A Great Story." The house appeared to have been abandoned for years, was completely gutted, and had graffiti inside and out. Parts of the walls were missing in both the front and the back. I stopped and set up my Green Monster 8X10. By this time the sun was dropping behind the mountains, so I worked quickly. The colors became muted and rich. I made two different images and promised myself that I would return soon. As I was breaking my camera down, two golf carts from the movie set drove by to get beer. We nodded at each other, acknowledging our respective arts.

It was a pleasure to work under the umbrella of such creativity.

The San Jacinto Mountains

A snapshot of the San Jacintos taken with my iPad

A snapshot of the San Jacintos taken with my iPad

Art has the powerful characteristic of steering artists away from dogma. Should an artist become too dogmatic, they'll soon find their world narrowing quickly, and their art becoming stale. A stale life leads to stale art. To keep creativity alive one must remain receptive to the unexpected.

Recently I was driving across the San Jacinto mountains en route to photograph the Vietnam memorials in Palm Desert. It was early, and the sun had just barely risen. I wanted to arrive at Palm Desert early in the day to shoot the right light, and had awoken at 4:30. But I was beginning to worry that even a 4:30 wakeup was too late. The sun was rising higher and higher as I drove east, insistently shining in my eyes. 

Driving along the winding roads I noticed this scene to my left, the blooming plant, the unusual rock shapes blending together, the "V" on the hills in the background, and I was given the choice of continuing to the memorials and hoping the light was good, or stopping and shooting this sure thing. I pulled over to the side of the road and walked around for a while. For more than a decade I've driven along this area of 74, but I've often found it difficult to find the photographs I've wanted to make. I've written previously that photographing scenes like this is like photographing broken glass. It takes a while to find the rime and rhythm that initially attracted me. The land keeps its secrets until ready, and then it shares.

Once I found the rhythm, I didn't stop. I ended up photographing for about an hour and a half, finally stopping only because the morning wind started up.

The Calumet C-1 "Green Monster"

The Calumet C-1

The Calumet C-1

All artists by nature must grow to love the tools that they use to create their art, or the act of creation becomes onerous.

My friend Chris, who paints in oil, lives in a one bedroom and took on a roommate to make his budget. Instead of choosing to paint elsewhere, or changing his medium from oil (which can be, um, a bit odiferous)to acrylic or watercolor, he found a way to paint that didn't smell up his apartment.

Chris knows his stuff. He can tell you his preferred brand of burnt umber, which his favorite brand of canvases are and why, and how mythological themes influence his art. When he took on a roommate, it never occurred to him to stop painting or change mediums. His art is too important to him, and stopping painting would be akin to asking him to saw off his leg. In that sense he reminds me of Harlan Ellison.

In the film Dreams With Sharp Teeth, Ellison shows the late Robin Williams his collection of manual typewriters - all the same brand, all portable, all lined up on shelves along the wall like books. And, Ellison declares to the guffawing Williams, he has a lifetime of typewriter ribbons on ice in the refrigerator, just waiting to be used.

Ellison, anticipating that technology would marginalize his favorite writing tool, stocked up. Never mind that these manual typewriters are the size of a suitcase, weigh more than a half dozen laptops, or that they are loud. He loves them, and they've played an important part of his creative process.

Cameras are just as important to photographers as oil paints to Chris, and those manual typewriters to Ellison. The right one makes creation a joy, while the wrong one feels like wrestling a pissed off rhino.

I went through a number of cameras, especially view cameras, before realizing that the two features that I really cared about were large knobs and rear movements. It was my Horseman 45L, with its infinite, silky-smooth movements that called out to be played with, that made my appreciation of these characteristics clear to me.

And I've never once seen anyone write either feature as a must-have in a review or article.

Large knobs are common on studio view cameras, but not field cameras. That's because small size is one of the most prized features of field cameras, and it's hard to have a small camera with big knobs. The same with rear movements.  Field view cameras typically have very limited, or no movements in their rear standards, the exact opposite of what I want. One of my favorite movements, which is uncommon on field cameras, is shift (the ability to move the lens or film, left and right).

When I recently had the opportunity to return to shooting 8X10, I kept the requirements of big knobs and rear movements in mind. Frankly, the only "field" camera that grabbed my attention was the Calumet C-1 "Green Monster."

 

One of the first 8X10 negatives from the Green Monster. 

One of the first 8X10 negatives from the Green Monster. 

 

Calumet began manufacturing the C-1 around 1965 in Chicago. The earlier versions, such as mine, were made of magnesium, and weigh 14 pounds. Later versions (including the black version known as the "Black Beast") were made of aluminum, and weigh 18 pounds. This is before the weight of lens or tripod is added. That means that the "Green Monster" is probably only a good fit for certain people. Luckily I'm one of those people.

I'm also someone who probably would break a wood camera before too long, so the fact the "Calumet C-1" and "John Deere Tractor" are often used in the same sentence to discuss how tough the C-1 is definitely inspired me to buy it.

I ordered my C-1 from someone I'd connected with on eBay over a different camera, and also bought a 240mm Schneider Symmar-S 5.6 lens, which is a heavy chunk of glass in its own right, sporting an 86mm filter ring (240mm is considered the widest lens that can easily be used with the C-1. I've read that you can go down to 180mm, but you won't be able to have any movements because the standards will be too close together.) that has proven to be tremendously sharp. The camera kit and Ries tripod easily come to 35 pounds before adding the weight of film holders. Surprisingly, I found that carrying the camera and tripod on my shoulder fairly comfortable.

I took the C-1 for a warm up shoot and found that I grew used to where the knobs were fairly quickly. It turns out that I like using shift on the rear standard of the Green Monster, but rise and fall on the front, because of the C-1s front gearing.  That may change as I use the camera more.

I couldn't help but notice that the movements were much rougher than my Horseman. I assume that both age and manufacture are the culprits. My C-1 has a fairly low serial number, so I assume that it was made before 1970. That means it's been shooting for a long time and probably has some issues with wear. Also, many other owners have observed that the Green Monsters aren't the most elegantly made cameras in the first place, so they probably were a little rough right off the assembly line.

Since the paint on mine is scratched up, I can see getting a second, back up camera, and then restoring this one. I'm inspired by several other C-1 owners who have posted photos and instructions on the Internet about restoring their cameras.  Because my goal isn't to restore to new (as in collectible), but to the condition I want, I'll work on smoothing out the movements and painting it a different color. I think that there may be some other interesting colors for the camera besides green and black, and I've already begun removing the easy to break clips which are essentially useless (OK, I'm fibbing. I've begun breaking those clips that are essentially useless, reinforcing my decision to get the John Deere of 8x10 cameras).

Some have called the C-1s ugly, but I don't agree. I see them as a masterpiece of modernist art, and if ever there was a camera that would have been displayed next to Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase at the 1913 Armory Show, the Calumet C-1 is it. The camera also looks like it belongs on the Nostromo in the first Alien film.  

And just as most people don't need a Deere tractor, most large format photographers won't need or want the Calumet C-1. But for those of us who love the movements, don't mind the weight, and want something that's rock solid, this is a great camera, and certainly one where, like my friend Chris or Harlan Ellison, the artist isn't left feeling like they've compromised.

Near Donner Summit

A snapshot taken with my iPad  

A snapshot taken with my iPad  

Photographing an area as beautiful as Donner Summit would seem easy to most people, and it is if you don't mind taking a picture that's a Sierra cliché. But taking a picture of substance here is harder than one would think due to the overwhelming amount of subject matter. You almost feel like you've been dropped into a valley of broken glass, and discerning the interesting compositions is difficult, though not impossible. 

I left my campsite around 10AM and stopped along HWY 40. To get a feel for the area, I spent half an hour walking amongst the granite before pulling out my 4X5. None of the spots that I walked interested me so I crossed over to the other side of the highway. The Reno and Truckee fire departments pulled up and parked next to me, and I feared they would interrupt my shooting, but I never saw them, so I assumed they were practicing elsewhere. 

Several interesting compositions jumped out at me quickly once I set up my camera, but the wind came up, blowing the junipers, and forced me to wait up to 20 minutes for it to die down before I could make my exposures. When I returned to my car, I found to my embarrassment that the fire departments waited for me to finish making photographs before they started their training. 

I continued along 40 and found another area that seemed promising. A group of school children was just leaving when I arrived, and this area forced me to reconsider each composition because the highway keep getting in the frame. I find compositions that I have to fight for are the most satisfying, and these final two of the day left me feeling good. 

 

Half Moon Bay II

A snapshot taken with my iPad. 

A snapshot taken with my iPad. 

The weather was foggy and murky during my stay at Half Moon Bay, and I loved it. I'd found a beach with amazing rocks that were accessible only during low tide, and used enough film in one day that I had to call my film supplier to make sure that they had more on order. 

On my final day I made the mistake of booking a meeting in San Jose with the Silicon Valley traffic, rather than the tide, in mind, and nearly returned to the coast too late. 

The tide was rising so quickly once I got back that there was only one rock that I could photograph. Sometimes having too many options can be a detraction rather than a benefit. Without the tide to box me in I never would have considered this rock so carefully. Instead I would have moved down the beach line, exploring all the different choices. But now I explored the changes in texture, the dimples, cracks, the attached sea animals, and the pockets of water.

I took seven images, all within ten feet of each other, and each pleasantly different from the other. It was a satisfying ending to my first visit to Half Moon Bay, and I can't wait to return.