Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Packing Light

A few weeks ago I wrote about taking it easy, slowing down, making pictures the old fashioned way, the all manual, mechanical way. Well I've been practicing quite a bit, no auto focus or auto exposure, no auto advance, and I have to say I've really been enjoying myself.

There's a rhythm I'm back into that I hadn't realized I really missed. This is the way I was shooting in the 80s: small, light, manual and completely mechanical SLRs. There's a distinct rhythm to advancing the film, turning the focusing ring, checking the exposure, framing the image and squeezing the shutter release that isn't quite the same when working with the electronic, auto everything camera bodies.

Make no mistake, I love my F100 and will never give it up. But I work differently with it and I think I make a different kind of photograph with it than I do with my F2 and FM2 bodies. There's not a huge difference between the images I make with the different cameras, it's a subtle difference I can see and feel.

I'll be heading up to Seattle in a couple of weeks and I'm packing light. As you can see I'm taking an F2 and an FM2. I may add a 24mm lens to the bag but basically this is it: the two manual/mechanical bodies, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 135mm lenses, the hand-held light meter and about ten rolls of film. That will be my working kit for about ten days.

I'm going to try to pay close attention to how I work, to see if I'm more careful and a little more discriminating. I think I have been so far, I see it in my most recent images. But this will be a good test, being in a totally different environment, seeing new things with a fresh perspective. It will be exciting. It will be what photography should be, fun. I'm looking forward to that.

Photo: ©2011 David W. Sumner

Sunday, May 22, 2011

It's "the Way" You See.

Rodchenko's House by David W. Sumner ©2011

I was thinking about this drawing today when I was out walking and stopped to photograph the front of a little cottage on 46th avenue.

Last January I was in LA at LACMA and saw, for the first time, a painting by Alexander Rodchenko. Familiar with his photography and design work I had never seen any of his paintings. I was very impressed and I immediately saw the connection to the rest of his work. It was after my visit to LACMA that I made this little drawing.

I think what has always impressed me most about Rodchenko's work is the persistent presence of his unique vision, his eye, his way of seeing. It has, at various times, inspired me to change my perspective, or alter my angle of view toward the subject in my view finder.

Seeing must be practiced and taking opportunities to see in different ways is always good practice.

"To me, photography is an art of observation. It's about finding something interesting in an ordinary place.... I've found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them." - Elliot Erwitt

Sunday, May 15, 2011

And When I'm Gone?

We all, and I mean me and most photographers I know, wonder what will happen to our life's work when we are gone.

What will happen to all our negatives, transparencies, digital files and prints when we are no longer here to care for and preserve and print or publish our images? What, if any value will those images be to anyone but ourselves?

Well, I believe that what we are doing as photographers is important in that we are documenting the times and conditions of the society in which we live. We are creating an important visual document in a very specific place, of a specific point in time in the history of the human condition. That document may not look impressive or important or insightful right now. But twenty-five, thirty, maybe fifty years from now another generation will look at those images and be informed by a unique vision of the past that has become part of the history of their lives. They may find some answers to some haunting questions that would otherwise remain unresolved.

We are seeing examples of this happening today as the work of many dedicated photographers who made their livings as dentists, insurance brokers, nannies and the like, is being discovered by relatives and flea market hunters. Thousands of negatives and prints hidden away in shoe boxes, suitcases, trunks and drawers are being found everyday. And much of this rediscovered work is providing insights and detailed information into some of the forgotten or ignored facets of our cultural and social evolution.

Most recently you may have heard of the rediscovery of the work of Vivian Maier and Frank Larson. Just two names among hundreds if not thousands of photographers who spent a lifetime documenting the places they lived in and traveled to. This is important work. Take a look, what do you see? What do you recognize? What don't you recognize? What's changed? What's the same? That's our society and culture in another time. What we are looking at is the vehicle that carried us to the present day.

As photographers we are aware of this and grateful that such bodies of work have not been lost. We also realize that much has been lost and we need to plan for the safekeeping and preservation of our own work. We understand that today, for us, there is a value to the images we make, but it's often hard to imagine who in the future will see them in the same way. And that's where we make our biggest mistake. Our images won't be seen in the same way we see them today. They will be seen by different eyes in another time, by people with vastly different knowledge than we possess and who will value those images in ways we will never imagine.

What we photograph today is the very foundation of tomorrow. It's what will someday be called history.

Photo: ©2011 David W. Sumner

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Life in Cafes

I love cafes. I consider myself a seasoned cafe sitter. There is a long and colorful history of cafe sitting. It has been celebrated in literature and film. Paris is probably the most famous city for cafe sitting.

There is a serious cafe culture here in San Francisco. Coffee houses and roasteries and crepe houses form the foundation of this social necessity.

In the 1990's the laptop computer gave the SF cafe culture an infusion of fresh blood introducing a new generation to this simple luxury so thoroughly romanticized by Hemingway in the 1920s.

I've been photographing cafes from both inside and outside for some time and I'm seeing some shape to the culture of the cafe in San Francisco. I'll be working to distill all of this into a coherent project in the near future. In the meantime here's a link to my May 2011 Flickr gallery featuring a taste of the cafe in San Francisco.

Photo: ©2010 David W. Sumner

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Do Not Try This At Home!

After 22 years of taking exceptionally good care of my Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 ultra wide lens, babying it like it was a solid gold egg, I got very careless and swung a Nikon F2 over my shoulder, forgetting I had another camera hanging there, and the F2 smacked my 20mm lens pretty hard.

Nothing broke, but it was soon apparent something was very wrong. The focusing ring was very tight and hard to turn as it approached the infinity mark. Taking a look through the view finder the only area in focus was absolute dead center, every edge moving inward was glaringly out of focus. In the back of my mind all I could hear was that famous line delivered so well by Charlie Brown, "I'm doomed."

It was a little sad after all the years to do something so dumb and damage one of my prize pieces of equipment, one of the few pieces of camera gear I ever bought brand new. But hey, 22 years is a good run.

It turns out that the over all effect achieved when shooting with the now totally messed up lens isn't all that unpleasing. When I scanned some recent negs I realized the images look something like one would expect from shooting with a Lens Baby. One of my Flickr contacts in Paris suggested that process of bashing the lens with the F2 created an instant Holga. One of my friends here in San Francisco briefly contemplated giving his M6 and Summicron 35mm a good whack with his F4.

I have to say I find the images I'm making with the 20mm in its present condition interesting, and until I can afford to have the lens repaired I think I may explore the creative potential of this not so unfortunate mishap.

Photo: ©2011 David W. Sumner