Friday, November 27, 2009

A Little UP Vacation

Adrienne and I traveled up N to Marquette for the Thanksgiving holiday, to be with our daughter and her gf. Marjorie and Stephanie treated us to a fine Thanksgiving dinner that was different from any that we previously had -- all vegan. I found myself not missing the turkey at all. Of course, a trip to Marquette would not be complete without doing some photography. I traveled light this time, bringing only a Nikon FM2N and 3 lenses, a Yashica A TLR, and my Canon G11.

A visit is never complete without a stop at Presque Isle Park - and a place that is always different. The wind was howling pretty good along the lakeshore, and the waves were pounding the breakwall.

breakwall action

I didn't take any photos on the West side of the park, as the wind and driving snow was too fierce to even think about taking out the camera!

The next morning after Thanksgiving, I went over to the Dead River N of the city. There was a thin layer of snow on the ground, giving everything a crisp look. The light - very flat - was great for reflections off the river.

Dead River

I shot two rolls of b&w with the Nikon, so it will be fun seeing how those came out.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Charis Wilson, Weston's Muse, dies at 95

I was reading my New York Times this morning, and in the obituary section, I see one of the most famous nudes in photography. That carefully composed nude of Charis Wilson by her then lover, Edward Weston:

Charis died last Friday at the age of 95. She was an amazing woman, and there is no question that she helped Edward Weston enormously. He very likely would never had gotten a Guggenheim grant without her writing it. Charis' "girl-next-door" beauty and Edward's photographic genius became a synergy that possibly was Weston's best period of work. She was his muse, his model, and collaborator. Who has looked at the image above and not fallen in love with it? A chaste yet sensual image, it's probably the most accessible nude photograph. One of many that Edward took, and unlike a pepper, needs no interpretation.

Charis and Edward have been the subject of a number of books by others, but it was her autobiography that told the real story. Through Another Lens My Years With Edward Weston by Charis Wilson and Wendy Madar tells the story from the woman that was there. One cannot help feel a little sad about the parting of Edward and Charis, but she had outgrown Edward, and Charis moved on to another life, and a very long one at that.

I was greatly moved by a recent documentary and hearing Charis' voice tell her story was riveting. At her advanced age, she retained the grace that she seemingly always had. If you are interested in seeing that excellent DVD, Eloquent Nude is available online for $25. There is also an interview with Charis from 1982 at the Smithsonian Archives.

Charis Wilson may have passed on corporeally, but she'll never grow old. That, is the beauty of photography.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Medium-Format Fisheye Fun

I have no doubt that there are "Lomography haters" out there, but whether one loves or doesn't love the Lomo folks, there is no denying that they have introduced some fun into film-based photography. I reviewed the new Diana+ quite a while ago, and yes, it's a cheap plastic camera, but I saw that they had cleverly added some features, such as the pin-hole and removable lens. Now, I see where their design has paid off. Back in October, I purchased the 20mm Diana Fisheye lens (as well as the Nikon SLR adapter, but that's another review) from Lomography online store. I felt it was a pretty cheap accessory with a potential big fun factor.

I give big kudos to the Lomography people for their colorful packaging and fun aspect of their products. Really, there is no understated yellow and black box here. The box contained the 20mm fisheye lens, a cleverly-designed accessory viewfinder, front and rear lens caps, a carry pouch, and instructions. The accessory finder easily attached to the Diana+ camera, as did the Fisheye lens. I suspect the finder is the same as the one on the 35mm Fisheye 2 camera. It gives a pretty good approximation of what you'll get with the new lens.

The lens close focuses to within a foot of the camera, which is pretty darn cool, though most of my shots have been made of subjects 2 meters or more from the camera.

OK, so it looks cool and funky, but how does it work? Let me first say that I think the image quality surpassed my expectations. Second, to get the full circular fisheye effect, you need to remove all the masks and shoot full-frame (12 exposures). Otherwise, the negatives will be cropped a bit. Third, this is a lot of fun to use.

Load o'pumpkins

I took a bunch of images back in mid-October, and these pumpkins were among my favorites. I took some shots for World Toy Camera Day, and this one of the top of the spillway at Barton Dam is kinda neat. You can see the bridge in the background.
Barton dam

The Diana Fisheye lens ought to be great for shooting in tight spaces. Sure you will get fisheye distortion, but if that effect appeals to you, then go for it!
garage studio
Take in my garage at the studio night for the Ann Arbor Area Crappy Camera Club.

Overall, I would rate the 20mm fisheye as one of those accessories that justifies the purchase of a camera. There is no doubt that the Diana+ is a fun camera. But, having a circular fisheye image on 120 film is a real blast. I can't wait to make some darkroom prints from some of those shots.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Who We Were - a review

Who We Were - A Snapshot History of America by Michael Williams, Richard Cahan and Nicholas Osborn. 2008. CityFiles Press, Chicago, IL. ISBN:0-9785450-1-x hardcover, 240 pp. 45.00

The people at the website Square America -- a treasure trove of found, vernacular photographs -- put together an engaging book with the title "Who We Were - A Snapshot History of America." With photographs ranging from the humorous to the tragic; from the round photographs from the original Kodak (taken from a surrey, no less) to a Hasselblad photo from the moon, Who We Were is a delight to read.

Once George Eastman made photography available to the average person, the era of snapshots began. No longer would families sit stiffly at a photographer's studio, dressed in their Sunday best. The snapshot became the way to document the ordinary, as well as the extraordinary. As with any technology, some folks were better at photography than others, and as cameras became easier to use, everyone in the family could become the photographer of family activities. Thus, the rise in photography also mirrors the changes in American society, as families became more upwardly and territorially mobile. The snapshot became a way to keep families abreast of events as they spread apart. It's no surprise too, that as families became more disconnected, the snapshots that were once important to one part of a family, became scattered to the winds as family members died off and distant relatives had no appreciation for the photos taken "back in the day." That sets the stage for the Square America authors, as well as all other collectors of vernacular photography. It's one thing to collect old photographs, but providing some perspective on them is a more difficult task, sometimes requiring a fair amount of keen detective work to provide a narrative about the image.

Who We Were accomplishes the above quite well. With over 300 photographs, starting from the 1890s to the 1970s, this book chronicles the larger changes in American society by showing the small events that shaped it, and were shaped by it. Some of the photographs are chilling -- a massive KKK parade in some city in 1922; burning oil wells straight out of Dante in 1930; an approaching tornado in gritty black and white. Others will make you laugh, as girlfriends, boyfriends, spouses, and parents appear in snapshot form. Others are revelatory. A photograph of tenant farmers in the South picking cotton with a sharecropper's house in the background is every bit as effective as a photograph by Walker Evans. Whomever took that photograph may have had a different agenda, but the image is no less effective at showing the situation.

The photographs in this book are reminders that our past isn't so different from today in that people are interested in pretty much the same variety of things -- our children, the opposite sex, funny events, relatives, pets, work, interesting events, vacations, wars, and all the events that impact us. The clothes, the houses, the transportation, and the technology may change, but we are not so different from the people in those images.

I really enjoyed the narrative of the Who We Were, and the photographs selected for the book really do provide a time-line of US history that is palpable, as the images are based on those taken by the average person. They were not taken by a news photographer, FSA artist, or professional, but the people impacted by or participating in the events. That is a people's history, which makes it all the more interesting.

If you go to the Square America site as of this writing, there is a $15 discount on Who We Were. My book also came with a DVD with vintage home movies on it, as well as a snapshot!

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Black is Sexy - The New Canon G11

And so is the new Canon Powershot G11...

I have been looking for a new high-end rangefinder type of digicam. There are a lot of times that I don't always want to use a DSLR, or I am out shooting film cameras, and a pocketable digital camera would be a good asset. I used to own a Canon Powershot A570, and although there was much to like about it, it was a pain to use it manually, what with all the menus. On top of that, it was a small camera, and I found the small buttons a bit bothersome at times. In addition, the start-up was slow, and I eventually replaced it with a Fuji Finepix S700. I gave the Fuji away to a deserving photographer, and replaced it with a used Nikon Coolpix 8700. A good digicam for doing many things, but it's not really compact...and it's slow. I love it for doing ebay shots.

So, after I had sold off a bunch of photographic items, and amassed a nice Paypal balance, I started looking at reviews of higher-end point and shoots, as well as the new Olympus EP-1. I had forgotten about Canon's lineup. As tempting as the Olympus camera is, I don't like the lack of an optical viewfinder, and the camera and lens would have set me back $900. That's real money. Not as much as the drool-inducing Leica M9, but that's not even something I could aspire to afford. So, I started looking around a bit more, and the new Canon G11 really appealed to me. I liked the idea of it being only 10 megapixels, the flip-out LCD screen, the optical viewfinder, and the CONTROLS. Real twisty dials to set ISO, exposure compensation, mode, and the 28-140mm (35mm equivalent) zoom fits perfectly in most of my shooting. So, I ordered one from Beach Camera (and they take Paypal!), and it was at my door in 2 days, with free FedEx shipping! It came yesterday, and and after I charged the battery and reviewed the manual, I was ready to fire away.
First impressions:
  • LCD image is awesome!
  • Easy to navigate menus and options
  • ISO dial, exposure comensation and mode dials are metal, and bring back the build one expects in a good rangefinder camera
  • I like the built-in ND filter
  • Lightweight, yet feels like I have a real camera in my hands
  • I can use an external flash...and results are very good
  • Optical viewfinder is pretty good... certainly not 100%, but I can use it for street shots.
  • Colors and clarity are very, very good.
This is certainly an expensive (for me) "point and shoot". At $499, it's obviously the top of the line in Canon's P&S stable. The difference between it and the Canon A570IS that I used to have is easily seen. There is a reason why the G10 became a favorite camera of many pros, and it's obvious that the G11 has improved on its predecessor. Canon did something almost unheard of -- they reduced the megapixel count from the previous iteration, and by all accounts I have read, it has increased the quality of the images at higher ISOs. So far, I have barely put 200 shots through the camera, so future shots will be taken at higher ISOs.

I'll be giving the camera a more thorough workout, but today, I took it on a walk in Parker Mill County Park and found it a lot of fun to use. Next time I'll bring a tripod to try out that ND filter the way it should be used... long exposures of moving water.

Fleming Creek