Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Favorite Photo Book of the Year

In my opinion the best photo book of the year is the little Blurb published book, "Look" by San Francisco painter Virginia Arana Greene.

Virginia's color compositions and treatment of form are so luscious that turning the pages of this book is like bathing in a tropical waterfall of visual perfection.

The most stunning thing about this body of work is that Virginia's preferred camera is the RIM BlackBerry Curve 8300: a cell phone. It's a simple case of the right tool in masterful hands.

The essence of the neighborhood she lives in has never been more exactly rendered. It is my neighborhood as well and "Look" is home.

Preview "Look" here:

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Space of Their Own

Artists build their living spaces around their work spaces. Creating a space conducive to making their art is first and foremost. If there is enough room to include a bed and access to a kitchen and shower all the better.

Photo: ©2009 David W. Sumner

(Teresa Newson's drawing table in her studio/bedroom, San Francisco.)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Still Life Found

I've always been fascinated by the still life. I've also found it extremely difficult to create a still life that doesn't look overly "set up." I do like the concept of the found still life. I suppose coming upon a collection of items that happen to appear as a nicely composed still life doesn't meet the strict definition of a still life, but I'm often drawn to such scenes because I see in them a stillness, a suspended moment that certainly relates to or reflects an aspect of someone's life. I understand that I'm applying an entirely different definition to the term "still life," but it better suits the way I see and make photographs.

Photo: ©2009 David W. Sumner

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Dave's Rule

The other day I was in a conversation with a few other photographers and there seemed to be a consensus that it's preferable to over expose negatives than underexpose. I certainly can see the logic in this if we're talking two or more stops of exposure. But as a general rule I can't say I like the idea.

It's possible that years of shooting slow speed transparency film instilled in me a deep dislike for blown out highlights. Of course there are times when blown highlights are unavoidable or even contribute to the making of a very expressive or dramatic image, but as a rule I think every effort should be make to avoid them.

I'd rather loose shadow detail than settle for blown highlights. Shadows are shadows. They are supposed to be dark. They are supposed to hide information. Dark to black shadows can be an advantage, but how often does a blown out highlight bring anything to an image?

So here's my rule:

Compose for the shadows
Expose for the highlights

Always determine what is the most important highlight in the scene and expose for that highlight. Compose your image using the shadows to the best advantage: fewer shadows to emphasize the highlights or more to add drama. Keep in mind that balance is always important, but some times balance is best when skewed to one side or the other.

Photos: ©2009 David W. Sumner

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Safeway Warehouse Fire, 1988

One evening in September of 1988, I was driving home when I spotted an eruption of fire in the distance ahead. At first I thought it must be rather close, possibly down town Berkeley. But soon I realized was not close at all and actually a very large fire.

Rather than head home I kept driving, curious to see how close I could get to the site of the fire. When I reached Richmond it was apparent that this was a major blaze and seemed to be consuming a sizable piece of real estate.

As I got closer the entire freeway was suddenly shrouded in thick black smoke and flaming debris rained down on the car and across all lanes. By the time I made it through the smoke I had actually passed the site of the fire. I quickly exited the freeway, crossed an overpass and got back on the freeway heading back toward the fire. I again passed through the dense smoke and managed to find an exit close to the site of the fire.

I pulled up along a narrow paved road that ran behind the huge warehouse that was burning. I grabbed my cameras and crossed a ditch making my way to what appeared to be the back gate of the warehouse complex. Emergency vehicles were just pulling up and I realized that I was the first photographer on the scene.

I started shooting pictures and the firefighters raised an aerial and began pouring water on the primary source of the blaze. The fire started spreading fast and soon things began to explode sending balls of flame high into the air. I ripped through a couple rolls of film before the first video news crew arrived. After they set up their gear each time I raised my camera they would turn off their lights.

I managed to work with the dramatic light from the intense flames and find positions that gave me relatively clear views of the firefighters and the major hot spots. After about an hour or so I packed up and made it home where I worked into the early hours of the next morning developing my film and making prints.

You can see a selection of the images I made that night here on Flickr.

Photo: ©1988 David W. Sumner

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Lost in Thought

Without a net, I catch a falcon
and release it to the sky, hunting

You. This wine I drink today was
never held in a clay jar. I love

this world, even as I hear the great
wind of leaving it rising, for there

is a grainy taste I prefer to every
idea of heaven: human friendship.

- Rumi

Photo: ©2009 David W. Sumner

Monday, May 11, 2009

Annie Leibovitz At Work

I never cared much for Annie Leiboviitz's commercial work. It always seemed to me to be nothing more than big budget, formulaic, churned out product.

Then I saw her retrospective show at the Legion of Honor here in San Francisco and I was truly impressed by her photojournalistic work: mostly B&W work from the early part of her career and the work she did in the 1990's in Sarajevo and Rwanda.

I had heard that her most recent book, Annie Leibovitz At Work, was quite good and finally decided to pick up a copy and read it. I have to say that the first half of the book is quite interesting, but from page 113 on I struggled to find anything compelling in either the text or the images.

Frankly I found her discussion of digital photography absolutely dreadful. Leibovitz is actually pleased to be telling the reader that her pictures of Queen Elizabeth are digital fabrications. For her session with the Queen she had 25 minutes. All the photos of the Queen were shot in a single room in front of a gray seamless. Four costume changes in 25 minutes, that was it. The background scenes of beautiful rooms in the palace and the stormy sky above the gardens, those were all separate digital photographs that were Photoshopped together with the portraits of the Queen.

For me the book was a disappointment. In my opinion, Annie Leibovitz is at her best with a Nikon F, a 35mm lens and a roll or Tri-X.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A One Picture Story

Photo: ©2009 David W. Sumner

The one-picture-photo essay is a worthy achievement for any photographer. It is never easy to do and is seldom seen. The image that comes to mind as the best example of this is Gordon Parks' image American Gothic. There are no words capable of matching the powerful expression conveyed in that image.

In the photo above I use the flag an a way similar to Parks' use of the flag in American Gothic. The flag establishes location and a sense of the social and political values that may or may not square with the other elements in the image. But it begins to tell a story. It doesn't tell a complete story, however it does provoke many questions, and on that level it is a successful image.

American Gothic uses the flag to point out truth and not as a symbol of truth. It is the power of Gordon Parks' image that moves me to search for the truth in any image that incorporates the flag.

Photo: American Gothic, 1942, by Gordon Parks
, courtesy Masters of Photography.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

It's Not A Job, It's An Adventure

Many years ago I realized the way to make photography completely dull and boring was by making it a job. I don't like taking pictures for other people. The business of photography has little to do with making images. I feel the same about blogging. If I had to do it I wouldn't like it very much. If it was a job, I'd hate it. And I don't want to hate it. I want to do more of it. So as with my photography, so with my blog. I shoot what interests me and what I think is important to document, I will treat this blog in the same manner.

I use Facebook to point out shifts in the photo industry, copyright issues and the like. I also use it to communicate with a few good friends.

Most of my current work can be seen on my Flickr page.I sometimes post five image photo essays there, and my complete Alcatraz project can be seen there.

I also use Twitter, which is linked to my Facebook page, to spread information about photography issues.

So I think I'm going to save this blog to just talk about making pictures and photography that I think is good and or important. That will interest me and hopefully keep me going in the blogosphere.

The photo above is from some recent work I've been doing while sitting in public places.

Photo: Union Square, San Francisco. ©2009 David W. Sumner

Thursday, February 5, 2009

When it All Comes Together.

It pays to always carry a camera. It doesn't always pay, but there are times when everything comes together.

I was walking home with a bag of groceries when I came to this corner and stopped to shoot a few frames of this caution tape wrapped around a power pole and stop sign. The yellow and red against a blue sky was quite nice. I made about three images and picked up my grocery bag and was about to cross the street when I saw this taxi coming into the intersection. Damn! I just pushed the camera in front of me and banged off one shot. This is it.

Photo: ©2008 David W. Sumner

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Digging Up the Present

When I graduated from the University of California Riverside I had completed 76 units in Anthropology and 32 units in Sociology. I needed only 36 units for my BS, but I was a bit of a social science zealot. It's probably obvious the extent to which that education has influenced me.

I'm beginning to look at my work as a sort of visual archaeology. Rather than digging up the past, I'm visually recording the arti-factual evidence of a contemporary society. In some cases I manage to photograph things as they are about to disappear forever or become rarer that they already seem to be.

Photo: ©2009 David W. Sumner (Dry point on copper plate and printing press, Dale Erickson's studio, San Francisco, California. 2009)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Urban Hawk

As I was on my way to the office this morning, about 7:15, before the sun had actually topped the East Bay hills, I spotted this young red tail hawk eating a pigeon on the sidewalk in front of Davies Symphony Hall.

I had already been shooting a bit as I walked along and quickly grabbed a couple of shots of the hawk, expecting it to take off as soon as it noticed me looking at it. But actually it could have cared less what I was doing. I had a single lens with me, a 24mm f/2.8, not exactly the right lens for shooting wild life, urban or otherwise. The light was dim, the lens too wide and the shutter speed too slow, but I decided to work it anyway.

Trying not to look directly at the bird, I inched closer and closer with little shuffling side steps, shooting a frame each time the bird looked away or went back to tearing at the dead pigeon. I shot two thirds of a long roll of Portra 400NC in this fashion while several people walked past never giving me or the hawk a glance. At least six people walked by never noticing that any of this was going on.

Finally as I got to within about 7 feet of the hawk I started attracting attention. I snapped another frame or two and moved on, encouraging others to do the same, which the did. And the hawk? Well he was just too young to know any better and went right on with his breakfast.

Photo: ©2009 David W. Sumner

Monday, January 5, 2009


There's a group of San Francisco photographers roaming the streets, gathering in Golden Gate Park, meeting in local bars, it's called Blow-Up!. The groups is famous for its Beer & Gear Sessions which involve the sharing of good food and drink and checking out all the interesting camera gear everyone brings along. In the photo above Blow-Up! members receive a clinic on using a 4x5 Crown Graphic in the San Francisco Botanical Gardens. So when you're out and about keep your eyes open; you may just end up the subject of a Blow-Up! photo.

Photo: ©2008 David W. Sumner