Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Neighborhood

Today, friend and fellow photographer, Jason Schlachet, reminded me how rich in imagery our own neighborhoods can be. I've always known this and often preached the notion to other photographers. But I do find myself occasionally lamenting the fact I no longer travel and thus believe my inspiration is impaired and my creativity stifled.

Then a day comes along when I pick up my camera on my way out the door to run errands and as I walk through the neighborhood I see some rather interesting and sometimes down right amazing things.

Again it's all about seeing, being aware of your environment and being open to considering new perspectives.

Photo: ©2010 David W. Sumner

Monday, September 27, 2010

Patterns of Behavior

I avoid using the word capture with regard to photographing. That's a term that has become so overused with the rise of digital imaging. It's a reference to a computer 'capturing' data.

I don't like the terms 'making a photograph' or 'taking a picture.' Although I do often talk about going out to take pictures. That's just habit.

I look at my process as documenting an image that I see or one I create: something I see on the street or a still life. I look for patterns. Yes, I search out visual patterns, but also patterns of behavior and thought that are often expressed visually. I use the camera and my physical position to create a composition that I feel will best document that discovered pattern on a two dimensional, visual surface.

Patterns of behavior are reflected so vividly in our physical environment. You may have noticed that my photos often do not include human figures. I believe that often times more can be learned about our social environment by studying these physically manifested patterns of behavior when they are devoid of an actual human presence. I liken this to a sort of visual archaeology.

When I photograph I'm making a visual document of a pattern, or an element of a pattern, of human behavior.

So I'd say rather than capturing or taking anything, when I work, I'm 'photographing' or 'documenting' the patterns of human and social behavior as I observe them around me.

Text and photo: ©2010 David W. Sumner

Sunday, September 12, 2010

I Know, I'm Beating a Dead Horse, But...

I continue to encounter very young people who are discovering photography as they buy their first DSLR. This is a continuation of same type of experience I had the first time I used a 35mm SLR. There is a compounding factor to this, however, and that is a lack of willingness to work to learn a skill or craft. This certainly does not apply to every young person with a camera who I happen to meet. But I have seen this often.

I've been asked by many young aspiring photographers what it takes to get pictures published or get gallery representation. They want to know a few names or recommendations or some sort of secret. They have fun shooting pictures and their friends have told them their pictures are good. Maybe a friend even asked them to photograph their wedding. They begin to consider the idea they could make money at photography. They want to be a pro.

Professional and fine art photography are businesses that are not controlled by photographers. Yes, photography is fun, a rewarding creative process, an extraordinary means of communication and expression. Making money at photography is business. Business requires a unique skill set that has nothing to do with photography, art or having fun.

When I mention the fact that becoming a good photographer takes a high level of commitment, dedication, and a lot of time and hard work, many of the young people I talk to get a glazed over look in their eyes and start rephrasing their questions in what seems a sincere hope they will get a different answer.

I realized early on, much to my disappointment that, I don't have the temperament or burning ambition to run a business. But I put myself through quite a bit to come to that realization. I spent several years reading books about photography and photographers. I read all the trade and popular magazines on photography every month for years. Every bit of money that didn't go to food and rent went to photography. I shot as much film as I could afford to buy, usually one roll a week. I taught myself how to develop film and make prints. I quit my job and sold my house so I could move to a city where I would have access to labs and publishers and jobs in the photo industry. I couch surfed for eight months while I looked for a job and a place to live in the Bay Area. For three years I worked for photographers, running errands, matting and framing prints, retouching, making contact prints, assisting, managing stock image files as a photo researcher, negotiating fees for use rights. When I thought I had learned enough to set out on my own and become a freelancer, I again quit my job.

I had met a lot of people: editors, art directors, designers, writers, publishers, all people I thought I could call up make appointments with for "lunch." What I didn't realize was that I was no longer "Dave from so-and-so's studio" I was now yet another guy with little "professional" shooting experience trying to get his foot in the door to show some prints. It was time to pay the dues.

I spent a year on the phone. I got on some want lists for stock, I got a few appointments and some polite rejections. I was hung up on often and in one case a designer who I had worked with on a couple of book projects for another photographer yelled into the phone, "What do you want from me?" and then hung up. I was nobody and they let me know it.

Sue Smith at Outside Magazine was nice to me and often called to see if I had images for a piece or knew someone else who might. She knew I could probably refer her to a good photographer, but she always asked me for images first. Mike Shaw at Rodale Press really gave me a chance. Mike was, at the time, the photo editor of Bicycling Magazine. Mike told me to shoot an event and send him some transparencies. I went to a local bike shop and picked up a copy of City Sport magazine and looked through it. I read there was a biathlon coming up in Marin. I called the organizer and talked him into letting me photograph the bicycling stage of the event. I hung out the back window of my car shooting Velvia 50 with an F3 and a 180mm lens as my wife drove the route. I shipped 40 images to Mike. He sent them back with a note. The work was nice he'd keep me in mind.

Three months later Mike called with an assignment. An article had been written about an organization in Marin that took city kids on weekend mountain bike rides up Mt. Tam. The magazine needed pictures. I shot the story and had a great time doing it. The magazine used four of my images. It looked pretty damn good. A couple months later Mike called with another assignment. Again it took me north of the city out to Mt Burdell. This time the story was killed but I got paid for a half day shoot.

All that took about a year. My net income from that work: $600. I'm not the kind of person who is comfortable not knowing where next month's rent is coming from. I had to get a job.

That experience taught me a great deal. First, I realized that shooting for someone else is not that much fun. Second, running a photography business is hard and costly work that has nothing what so ever to do with making pictures.

So, after all that, here's what I tell people today when they ask me about becoming a photographer:

1. It doesn't matter what field you want to get into, you have to start at the bottom. You have to pay your dues, there is no way around it.

2. If you want to be a good photographer, read, read a lot, study the photographs of the photographers who have gone before you. Study them intently.

3. Understand that photography is not glamorous. Photographers make things look glamorous. That's often their job.

4. Realize that what ever you do there is very little if anything original you will ever bring to photography. Understanding this you should then strive to bring some originality to everything you do.

5. You will learn by doing. Do the work, put in the time. If you're not willing to do that, get out now. Find something else, find where your passion is. Because if you're not passionate about photography you will never become a "good" photographer.

6. Go out and shoot 100 rolls of film, then let's talk.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Finding a New Pictorialism

I suppose I've always been attracted to the impressionistic qualities of Pictorialist photography. Although Pictorialism as a photographic movement was an effort to define photography as an art by emulating painting, I've never wanted to make a photograph that looked like a painting. However, I have always wanted to make photographs in that style of the early Pictorialists.

I tried a variety of methods over the years and was never satisfied. Many of the problems I encountered I chalked up to the superiority of today's film emulsions and the complete unavailability of many of the materials being used by photographers at he turn of the twentieth century. Much of my dissatisfaction had to to with my own impatience and my unwillingness to experiment with chemicals and wet processes which I had given up many years before.

At one point I thought Photoshop would provide the solutions I was looking for. But again I found nothing satisfactory. Recently, while experimenting with scanning medium format negatives using a flatbed scanner not equipped to properly scan film, I came upon a technique that allows me to produce exactly the look of Pictorialism I've been after.

Initially working with a color negative that is scanned using an Epson 1650, a sheet of Xerox paper and a small light box, I am able to take the resulting scan, manipulate it using a few basic Photoshop adjustments (Levels, Brightness & Contrast), convert it to black and white and invert it to a positive image. After a few slight adjustments of the positive image and a bit of toning I end up with an image I feel absolutely meets my vision of Pictorialism.




Photo: Stone Fruit and Tea Cup, ©2010 David W. Sumner

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Most Accurate Abstraction

I spent most of today hanging out and talking with my good friend, photographer Tony Remington.

Tony and I talked a lot about the fundamentals of photography and the benefits of keeping things simple.

We talked for several hours about personal vision and the need to do the work. We tried to get to the essence of what photography really is. What is that one fundamental element that defines every image we make?

Tony summed it up this way: photography is the "most accurate abstraction of reality."

This is exactly what we do every time we release the shutter. We endeavor to create the "most accurate abstraction of reality" we possibly can. This is what defines our personal vision. This is how we became photographers.

Photo: ©2010 David W. Sumner

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Color as Color

I've been doing some color work lately, still trying to figure out my relationship to color. Focusing on color as subject seems to be what I'm most interested in and produces the type of color images that please me most.

I spent years shooting transparency film mainly because it was always the sharpest color film available and at the time it was the standard for color reproduction in the publishing world. Today I'm more concerned with making images that satisfy only me, and that has led me to experiment with various color films, both transparency and negative.

After shooting both Fuji and Kodak films from ISO 100 to 800, I settled on Fujichrome Astia 100F. But wanting to keep expenses down I recently started looking at color neg film again and I may have found the right film for my current approach to color imagery.

Kodak Portra 160VC is looking really good right now. It produces vivid color without losing its neutral base and it's incredibly sharp. I prefer it over Kodak's Ektar 100 and even Fuji's Astia100F. The 160VC has a good exposure latitude and a great tonal range giving it the ability to handle subtle hues and vibrant colors, and it scans really well.

I'm looking forward to working with it more and I'd be interested in hearing from other photographers who have experience using this film.

More to come.

Photos: ©2010 David W. Sumner
(Both images made with 35mm Kodak Portra 160VC)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On the Street and at Risk

On March 13, 2010 I was on my way home from work, and as I reached the Van Ness/Market Street metro station I heard men screaming. I looked up to see two patrol cars blocking traffic on Market Street, and two policemen trying arrest two men in the street. One man was resisting being arrested as one of the policemen yelled at him to get on the ground. The man started screaming. The policeman began to force the man down and continued screaming at him to get on the ground. Once the man was on his knees the policeman drew his sidearm pointing it at the man’s back and shoved the man face down on the street.

This all happened in a matter of seconds. When I saw the gun in the policeman’s hand I decided to start taking pictures.

The policeman had holstered his sidearm before I shot my first frame. At this point a woman on the sidewalk ahead of me started screaming at the police to leave the man alone. The man being arrested started screaming at the woman to “go away before they arrest you too!” I watched as she walked down the street, passed me, and went around the corner. It was odd, but I noticed as she walked by me she was smiling. I went back to taking pictures.

It was obvious the excitement was over. As I shot the last frame of the arrest I felt a heavy, dull bang on my right leg. I looked around and saw the woman running around me to my left and up the sidewalk toward the police. She had just kicked me in the knee. When I yelled at her she turned and charged me. I pulled the camera up in front of me, not putting it to my eye, and managed to get off a frame before she started swinging on me. Her left hand came down on the end of my lens and she started to windmill with her right. I prevented her from hitting me and pushed her away.

She started screaming that I had no right to take pictures of something I knew nothing about and dashed for the metro station. I yelled back that I was on a public sidewalk and well within my rights and followed her down the stairs trying to get another picture. The more I yelled at her the faster she ran. She went through the station, crossing under Van Ness and out the other side.

By that time I was feeling quite tired. My leg hurt, I had a headache and I realized, someone that crazy could have been actually dangerous.

I’ve always felt that a photographer has the obligation to document his or her social environment, especially in times of turmoil or even during moments of tense interaction. But at this point in my life I’m too old to risk serious injury, and while I’ve never felt the threat before, I do now.

Photos and text: ©2010 David W. Sumner

Saturday, March 6, 2010

He Does It His Way

Don Felton with his 30 year old Nikkor 105 mm Non-AI lens mounted on a Canon DSLR.
Photo: ©2010 Anna L. Conti

Don Felton, owner and primary photographer, of Almac Camera here in San Francisco, has been shooting art work for many of the major artists, galleries and museums in the Bay Area for about thirty years.

Don is a very intuitive photographer and has never gotten bogged down in technical matters or equipment issues in terms of getting his work done. For years he shot everything from 8x10 to 35mm; always transparencies that were perfectly exposed.

His set-up has always been extremely simple: tungsten lights bounced into huge foamcore reflectors that he moves around until the artwork is lit just right. The results have always been superb.

When Don made the switch to digital he knew what he wanted. Rather than adapt his style to the digital revolution he took just what he needed from the booming technological advances that overwhelm most of us, and he never missed a beat.

Don shoots with two high end Canon DSLRs on which he has mounted his 30 year old manual focus Nikkor lenses. He never uses the light meters, the cameras are always in manual exposure mode. He opens up the lens, focuses on the art work ( I asked him if he used the camera's electronic rangefinder to verify focal and he asked, "What's that?), then he stops down to f/11, activates the self timer and starts bracketing shots in 1/3 increments of shutter speed. He operates his DSLRs the same way he operates his 8x10 view camera. It's a treat to watch him work.

Sunday, January 31, 2010


Anna and I often pick window seats in cafes when we stop for coffee on our walks. We watch the people go by and observe the dynamics of the neighborhood. This particular window is plastered with menus and specials promoting what the cafe has to offer. Several people stopped to read the ads while we sat there watching the sidewalk. The menus and ads on the window prevented the people from seeing that we were photographing, which meant we could observe without effecting their behavior. As we watched, extraordinary compositions would form and reform within the frame of that window.

Photo: ©2010 David W. Sumner

Saturday, January 23, 2010

To The Point

"By removing the color, we become more involved with the object's form and much more aware of the light that's falling on the object."
- Craig Varjabedian

"I don't find that color adds anything to what I'm trying to say about our society. If anything, it's always a disturbing factor."
- Milton Rogovin

"In most color photographs the color is gratuitous, it doesn't have meaning."

- Bruce Davidson

"Your photograph is telling a story. At a certain point you've told that story. More of the same thing becomes boring. If you go further you have to tell something additional that relates to your main story."
- Ray McSavaney recalls Ansel Adams' advice on cropping

"Viewers are usually unaware of whether they are looking at a silver print or a carbon pigment print and most do not care. It's the image they're interested in."
- Paul Roark

Photo: ©2009 David W. Sumner