Last View from the Old Path

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Forest Park by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I’m retired now. No longer do I get up in the morning and come home in the evening to go to and come from work.

It’s far too early to say whether retirement will suit me well or not so well, but one aspect that is changed forever is the cycle ride home through Forest Park. These photographs are from my final days and represent scenes I’ve followed through the seasons over many years.

Forest Park by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

It’s not like I’ll never see these views again – I’m sure I’ll be back in Forest Park over and over again. What’s changed is the association. Before, this journey represented the escape after the restrictions of the day, and even though the escape was short lived before the cycle repeated itself, it still offered a sense of relief.

Forest Park by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

As such, these pictures represent the essence of meaningful photography. They may be meaningful only to me, but that’s enough.

Forest Park by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I constantly find myself torn between expectations of what a ‘good’ photograph should be and the reality of what really matters. Given that almost everything we photograph represents something that has already been portrayed, either with earlier photographs, or older still paintings, it becomes practically impossible to create something wholly original. So why bother? On other words, why try to scrabble out an image that fits some preconception of what a photograph should be? Why not simply use the camera as a record of time, place and the accompanying emotion?

Forest Park by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

That’s what I’ve done here. I will be unable to regard any of these six photographs without summoning the emotions associated with a huge change in life circumstances, one of the most significant waypoints in one’s journey from birth to death.

Forest Park by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

So that’s how they lie. Fresh for now, but destined to be encrusted with time’s barnacles and the opaque distortion that follows. Emotion will overlay emotion, memory will metamorphose into nostalgia. This is how it always is; it’s impossible to truly recapture the feelings of any time passed. However, as markers of a particular moment, they will anchor more of the past that might otherwise be saved. As such, they are more worthwhile than many a more celebrated set of images.

 

Last day

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Hot Day at the Boathouse by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

It’s my final day of work tomorrow. Not the last day of my current job, the last day period. I’m retiring and I’ve been ready for a year or so. It’s been a long slog getting here, but here I am and I can be thankful that I put a lot of financial preparation over several decades into being where I am today.

That preparation can be boiled down to one maxim; save early and save as much as you can. Thirty years ago that was the take home lesson I gleaned from a local seminar on retirement savings and I’m happy to say it worked.

But that’s not the real point of this post. What I’m more concerned with is the transition from an active worker to someone who no longer needs to work. For my identity, like many others I suspect, is to some extent bound up in what I do. I need to let go of this, and re-seat my identity in who I am. Ideally, of course, I should have accepted this years ago but it’s hard to overcome social conventions that prize occupation – and salary – as measures of worth above almost all else.

But now I have to. That, I’m sure, is going to preoccupy my early days in retirement above almost all else. I’m pleased this is happening; I resent evaluations that are based on what you do. It would be so much nicer if we could all focus on what we are, but, as I said, convention works against this.

That said, I have to say I have probably have spent less time caring about what I do than many others. At my retirement party, my boss said I was ‘One of a kind’ in his speech, and I found that both accurate and satisfying. I’ve never chased big bucks nor have I sought promotions or what one might call career advancement. Instead, I pushed for maximum autonomy in what I do and, on the whole, achieved that. As a biochemist, that option is perhaps more obtainable than in other jobs. I’ve also prized working with good people very highly, regarding a personable working companion as worth far more than some salary boost. By the end of my career, I was largely exactly where I wanted to be. It makes leaving a lot easier.

So what am I going to do now? Photograph, obviously, and finally with the time and freedom to seek out a wider range of opportunities. Hopefully, I’ll improve further but any improvement is really only going to be meaningful to me. Even less than before, I photograph for myself now.

Just as I did with the picture of Post-Dispatch Lake in Forest Park that you see above. (‘Post-Dispatch Lake’, what a name!). It’s one of series of photographs documenting my last days of returning home through the park and, by extension, the constraints of time and place that existed at that time. They form a record of my last days at work, and as such carry a potent emotional charge. And they are on film – somehow gaining weight through this, leaving as it does a tangible, material record of a moment caught.

 

 

 

An Unfashionable Lens

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Newly constructed stage by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

For every lens that gets rave reviews from the photographic community and intimate examination by the pixel peepers, there are many others that get shunted aside or ignored. Not because they are intrinsically awful, at least in most cases, but simply because they don’t rival the greatest. Most often they fail in the sharpness category, but other factors such a distortion, color fringing, vignetting and basic build quality also play a part.

Sharpness, however, is the main differentiating factor, and, judging by the amount of space devoted both to articles about lens sharpness and to the comments that tag onto these articles, an issue that is uppermost in many (maybe most) photographer’s minds.

Because sharpness is so highly valued, lenses that fall short in that department are swiftly rejected by many. One of these is the recently discontinued Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 IS DO USM lens.

I, too, reading negative reviews such as Bryan Carnathan’s in the The Digital Picture dismissed this lens as a potential purchase and bought instead a number of large, heavy but beautifully built and sharp Canon ‘L’ lenses that covered the long telephoto range.

But I’m getting older and prefer to slim down my equipment for travel. I also like less ostentatious equipment that does not draw attention to itself. Those large white ‘L’ lenses always stand out, intimidating subjects and raising my fears of camera theft.

So when an opportunity arose to buy a used 70-300mm DO lens for about one fourth of the retail price arose, I decided to get it for travel purposes.

I didn’t have a lot of high hopes for this lens. I was intrigued by its Fresnel lens elements that help reduce size and weight, but as long as it was serviceable it would do.

Well, now that I have it, I find it to be a lot more than simply serviceable. Firstly, the image quality, so widely disparaged, is more than adequate. True, wide open and at 300mm, there is some softness and loss of contrast but stopping down no more than a single stop improves the image considerably. It may not rival in absolute pixel peeping sharpness the latest generation of ‘L’ lenses but it compares well with the prior (2000-2010 era) lenses. Not better but not significantly inferior. And I have felt no need to replace those older ‘L’s with newer models; the upgrade in quality wasn’t worth the extra cost in my opinion.

This is salutatory lesson. I spent a lot of time researching and way too much money in the past chasing and buying the latest and greatest lenses when, in reality, they did little to improve my photography and have often found themselves underused. I would have been better off spending more time using what I had, such as consumer grade kit lenses, making actual photographs rather than dreaming about making better photographs.

So I fell slap into the trap, carefully cultivated by camera manufacturers, that better equipment means better photography. It’s taken much longer than it should to get out.

At last, though, I find myself able to look beyond what is fashionable or critically popular highly rated and look for myself at what I really need. The Canon DO zoom is relatively small and compact, unobtrusive and lightweight in comparison to many of its competitors and will do me very well as my long telephoto zoom for future trips.

(Photograph take with the DO lens)

Three years of film

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Back garden, May 2014 by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

Back garden, May 2014

Back garden, March 2017 by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

Back garden, March 2017.

Well, almost three years. But close enough to make a few points.

Firstly, I’m shooting much the same scenes then as I am now. And I could go back a lot further too if I admitted my digital photographs into this comparison.

Secondly, my technique – as far as photographing, developing and scanning black and white film – hasn’t advanced much in terms of absolute image quality. This was a surprise at first. I fully expected my early photographs to be full of imperfections from the developing process, and, to be fair, many of my early attempts are less clean and more scratched (through impatience with the washing and drying process). A few, maybe three or four, rolls were ruined by misloading the camera or by developing mistakes. This has not happened recently.  But overall, those early negatives look just as good as my latest ones.

In the early days of my digital photography, I produced many under or overexposed images, lost images through careless handling of storage media, and noticed a marked improvement over time as I upgraded my cameras – as well as improving my personal technical skills. As this period spanned from about 2000 to today, the technological advances were considerable. Film, on the other hand, is pretty much an end-developed medium. And when I took it up three years ago, my camera skills were about as advanced then as they are today.

So perhaps it is not that surprising that three years worth of negatives show nothing of the changes and advances of the digital years. I have learned many more techniques, from the use of color filters for black and white, many developing methods for both black and white and color film, to wet printing gelatin silver prints. I’ve also absurdly expanded my camera and lens collections, largely because older film equipment is largely unwanted and consequently inexpensive and a lot of fun to use. But as to making photographs – not so much.

Perhaps that’s a good thing. When you are no longer chasing technical advances – on whatever level – it becomes easier to step back and simply think about what you are photographing. Certainly I’ve seen a change in emphasis. I’m no longer that interested in producing ‘Wow’ pictures. Instead I’m looking for subtleties. As I indicated above, I’ve found myself photographing the same places and objects over and over again. At different times and in different light. This trend is likely to accelerate as I retire and can devote more hours to any particular scene.

The results may end up interesting only me. But that’s OK. What I do have now – and what I did not have three years ago – is a massively expanded battery of potential photographic treatments that extend far beyond any popular Photoshop effect. It’s a path I would recommend to any photographer looking to further his or her abilities and imagination.

Diffraction and the real world

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Columbine by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

Photography is full of myths and conventional wisdom. Astonishingly, they occupy the attention of far too many for far too long.

Not a new phenomenon by any means, reams and reams of verbiage were devoted to the intricacies of film photography, it, nonetheless, seems to have exploded in the age of digital cameras and the internet. Anyone with a computer and an image processing program can examine an image right down to the pixel level and share his or her opinions with the online community. Never has it been a better time for the technically obsessed.

One of the common pieces of accepted wisdom in this digital age is the destructive influence of diffraction on your photograph. As long as there have been lenses, the physics of very small apertures leading to highly diffracted and thus soft images has been understood. These days, the pixel density of sensors also plays into this softness; as pixel density increases and pixel area decreases, the ability of each pixel to differentiate – and thus resolve – the light from a lens falls relative to the diffraction level produced by the lens. Images from high density sensors will, given the same lens and f-stop position, be softer.

Thus has been born the diffraction limited aperture (DLA) specification that indicates the minimum aperture size that any given sensor can resolve – a typical set of values can be found in this review of the Canon 5D Mark IV.

Once upon a time I paid attention to this. I even convinced myself the images from my old Canon 40D were somehow softer at an equivalent f-stop setting than those from my older 30D with its larger pixel size.

That was nonsense as far as the real world is concerned.

The simple truth is that any softness in an image due to diffraction issues of either the lens or the sensor or both is insignificant compared to the softness brought about by lack of focus, camera shake, subject shake, other limitations in the lens and falling outside the depth of field.

And of all those factors, camera and subject shake are by far the most important. Focus too, although most modern autofocus systems work well provided the correct focal point is selected. Depth of field – well, that works in opposition to the effect of diffraction within a lens. A smaller f-stop (more diffraction) provides a deeper depth of field (more elements before and behind the point of focus that can resolve as being distinct and not blurred).

This was brought home to me today by the above image of a columbine plant. The aperture used on the Nikkor 55m macro lens is incredibly small for a 35mm camera lens – f/32. It was necessary to get the depth of field you see. But the diffraction involved is largely imperceptible. The image is sharp and crisp. I didn’t expect this – everything I understood about both the lens and high density sensor on the Nikon D750 camera convinced me that I should be getting an image that looked as if it had passed through a softening filter.

Once again I was reminded that the only true element in photography is the photograph you actually end up with. The more time spent experimenting the better. That is how you really learn.

 

The triumph of the ordinary

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Broken Rake by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

In many ways I am the stereotypical amateur photographer.

An older white male. A collector of camera equipment.  Compensated sufficiently elsewhere that I never have to rely on my photography to generate an income. A potential dilettante who takes just enough interest in the art to move me out of that category yet not really enough to move me into the photographic artist league.

Just like thousands, I might say, tens, even hundreds of thousands, of my fellow photographers.

Is this a bad thing?

Yes, if I really want to be taken seriously as an artist. No, if I simply want to enjoy what I do with a camera.

That’s the issue. I inhabit the borderline between these two options, never really settling into either.

Why is this? Why does this divide even exist?

Much of it has to do with how I, or others, define an ‘artist’. An artist has a vision, something to say. Something, moreover, than can be articulated and placed into the context of a philosophy of art.

But there’s more to it, isn’t there? There’s the problem of audience.

Art is requires a creator and a viewer (or listener, or any other sense). Without that audience, is it art at all (a corollary to the famous ‘tree falls in a forest and no one hears it’ conundrum’)?

These days, thanks in large part to the internet and photograph sharing sites, it’s almost laughably easy to get an audience. This ease is seductive. The problem is that this audience, as measured by number of visits or likes or comments, is such a pronounced source of ‘strokes’ (to use the language of transactional analysis) that whatever art you produce becomes biased towards the accumulation of this acclaim. And in doing so, it becomes homogeneous, lacking in differentiating qualities, accumulating instead an abundance of trigger aspects that ultimately speak far more to the audience’s expectations and preconceptions than to any vision derived from the artist’s own imagination.

But strokes are important. We all desire them. The question is – how much? I’m fortunate that other aspects of my life, work, family, other hobbies and interests, provide plenty of satisfaction. I feel no overriding compulsion to be praised for my photography. Yet – naturally enough – I still like it when I am.

It’s this psychological conflict – the twin yet often opposite desires to be liked and to be true to a certain way of looking at the world that I find meaningful – that can derail my motivation when it comes to photography. A tortured artist sounds romantic but most often it simply means an unproductive artist.

So how do I – or you – overcome this?

Firstly, you really have to decide which side the equation really motivates you. Are in the game to be praised or in it to express some idea or concept that really concerns you? Ironically, it’s actually much easier to go the ‘praise’ route – all you need to do is find the paradigm that generates the most popular acclaim and milk it for all you are worth. If you are technically accomplished, it comes even easier. Of course, the price you pay is the loss of originality and an outlook that you might consider to be truly personal, but that may not matter.

The other approach is just as likely to leave you in the wilderness as it is to gather acclaim. Ironically technical accomplishment is largely irrelevant here; what matters far more is imagination and a creative impulse. Skill with a camera will help you fine tune your vision, but without the vision to start with it’s not going to substitute for substance. Furthermore it’s only sustainable with a very healthy ego, a strong belief in the rightness of what you are doing.  Not many of us have that to begin with, let alone the strength to sustain it over a lifetime of creativity.

Maybe that’s why out of the thousands or even millions of photography enthusiasts worldwide, there are really not that many that one might call artists. For every well-known and successful art photographer, there are hundreds languishing in obscurity. Deserved in some cases, perhaps, less so in others.

But even the undeserving (through a combination of lack of imagination, vision, skill and originality) get credit for trying. Their results may only please their creators – and that’s enough. It’s easy to get caught up in the intellectual analysis of art and forget that photography is functional too. As a record of people, place and events. A visual diary of people’s lives. That is important – maybe more important, in truth.

And therein lies the true significance of the title. It’s worth remembering when I find myself getting too involved. Sometimes art need to be artless.

 

 

While recovering from norovirus

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End of the line by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I haven’t been sick for a long time so it’s been a bit of a trial this. Vomiting and all else. Not pleasant at all. That part might have passed but I still feel achy and cranky as all heck. Funny how quickly patience and consideration evaporate when you ache.

Not to mention things you want to do being passed by. The irritation of being house bound.

I know, things could be a lot worse.

One thing it does do, though, is to strip a lot away from your thinking. Irritation is a powerful abrasive. It rubs politeness away. I guess I’m getting somewhat close to all the loonies who relish conspiracy theories and live as internet trolls. Of course, those poor sods are at it twenty four hours a day and are nowhere near any sense of self-awareness that might break them out of their home-built purgatory.

Sad! – to use a regrettably overused epithet.

Anyway, all this crankiness is having the delightful effect of bringing to the fore the always-present but mostly suppressed notion that I believe I am as good a photographer as I need to be – right now. Amazingly, this has always been the case ever since I began. Even though, looking back, I do see plenty of evidence of misplaced confidence but it certainly wasn’t clear at the time.

Well, that’s the result of experience and practice. What I do realize now, and should have realized right from the beginning, is that I don’t need to copy or emulate anyone else and my general disgust with 99% of popular photography isn’t something to hide or somehow explain away.

The truth is that 99% of all photography, including all those over-processed color saturated grandiose landscapes or those tasteful, Photoshop-cleansed nudes or anything else that a whole class of photographers regard as the be all and end all of the art is utter and complete garbage. Mind rot. Empty of purpose (except to fool the unthinking) and bereft of artistry.

With such an attitude it’s a wonder that I pursue the art at all, but the reality is that the 1% that comprises the good photographs is constantly and swimmingly inspiring and, more importantly, reassuring that real art can come out of the medium. ‘

So every time I groan at the popular crap floating to the top in 500px or fstoppers or anywhere else, I can flip open my copy of Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ and be brought right back into a state of bliss.

Curiously, when in this state of bliss, my own work takes on a value that makes me feel, once again, like a perfect photographer. Something I never feel in the presence of the 99%. When there I feel dirty, ashamed to be associated with such drivel through the shared label of ‘photography’.

Well, that’s what great art does. It brings out the humanity and the very best in you. Wouldn’t it be nice to keep that feeling permanently in place. Sadly, we live in a corrupted world and there’s no getting away from that. But I can try.

 

The Divide

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Graves at the Church of Sophia, East Berlin, by Thomas Struth. St. Louis Art Museum.

I find it fitting that a photograph I use to illustrate a concern of mine represents a city that was split in two. This photograph of Berlin dates back to 1992, two years after the reunification of Germany and acts as a commentary on that divide. Scenes such as this were denied to Western photographers in the years of the Cold War.

It’s a strange photograph. I found it today hanging on the wall of a modern art gallery in the St. Louis Art Museum. On the surface, it seems little more than a snapshot. I would very surprised if it, entered in the St. Louis Photography Club competition, made the final 100 (out of 400) entries. My entry into that show, a pretty but essentially a jigsaw or chocolate box cover, did get into that final.

Forest Park in autumn by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

As I say, it’s a pretty picture. But I would not call it great art, and I would never expect to find it hanging on the wall of an art museum.

This is the divide that concerns me. Many photographers I come across make technically highly proficient images, images that in many cases fulfill the conventional aesthetics of what make for a beautiful picture, yet, again, these photographs are not great art.

Why is this?

Ultimately, it is always about context. Most photographers, including myself, are content to follow conventional paths. Sunrises, sunsets, seascapes, landscapes, portraits of beautiful women, still lives of pretty things — subjects that work to make for an attractive image. An attractive image that, in most cases, is context irrelevant.

What do I mean by that?

I mean these pictures fail to provide any sort of context beyond the simple surface attraction of the photograph. There is no commentary. You could swap out and replace the subject, landscape, person- whatever – and end up with essentially exactly the same end result.

Great art works differently. It is intensely concerned with the moment, and better it comes to capturing a moment, the better the art becomes. That’s why the Struth photograph, deliberately set in a specific time and with a specific mood that reflects or comments on that time, is hanging in the St. Louis Art Museum.

It’s ironic, really. Photography on the surface is always about capturing the moment. For some photographers, Cartier-Bresson for example, that ‘decisive moment’ is ultimate goal. Yet very few of us really do it. What we do instead is capture a faux-moment, a readily recognizable frame, that appeals to generalities and not to specifics.

I feel this intensely. It’s the reason why I find so much photography to be empty of meaning. Including much of my own. I’m trying to change this, to look for photographs that embrace context. Even if that context makes little or no sense without some real work by the viewer. Photographers who are acutely aware of how their work comments on the world around them appeal to me enormously, perhaps my favorite being Cindy Sherman.

I’ll never aspire to that level of artistry. But I am aware of it as a goal. What distresses me is how so few of my fellow photographers seem aware at all of these concepts. Is it really that hard?

 

Ordinary

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Something has been happening both to my outlook and to my photography.

Partly this is a result of my upcoming retirement. I am adjusting to a world where work no longer plays a paramount part. Even now, some months before I leave, I feel a tangible loosening of the bonds of responsibility.

Partly it may just be age and experience. It may also have more than a little to do with the cumulative effect of the many of the issues and thoughts I’ve detailed here on this blog. Philosophical growth, I suppose I could call it.

Whatever the blend, the result is a fairly radical reevaluation of what is meaningful to me in terms of my photography. Long gone are the pretty or technically dazzling shots that used to preoccupy me. Instead, I celebrate – and I use that word deliberately – a certain kind of ordinariness. Scenes that I wouldn’t have given much a look to in the past.

Such as this stairwell.

Scene from a Stairwell by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

It’s one of the access stairs in the St. Louis Art Museum. Unlike almost everywhere else in the building there is no art here. Just a cloakroom attendant and a fairly ordinary staircase.

I took it after collecting a number of art work related photographs. Those came out fine, but not in any exciting way. This, somehow, did.

I like the angles and the shading. The attendant serves as a far point focus of interest, the light shimmering off the bannister as a near point. They balance, yet none of the other lines and angles really do. Asymmetry seems to dominate, partly a consequence of the lighting and partly a consequence of the camera angle. There are large areas of dead space. The photograph draws you in yet leaves you unbalanced. It’s unsettling.

This is the type of photograph that appeals to me now. Ordinary yet unordinary. I intend to follow this path for a while.

 

Up Your Photographic Game

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Flood Plain Sunset by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I just received an email invitation to ‘Up my photographic game’ from Nikon with a tour through Chile and Easter Island in the company of some photographers. Price not specified (that I could find) but doubtless several or more thousand dollars.

As a travel expedition, yes, I can see merit in this. But as to ‘upping my photographic game’, well, put anyone with a good (presumably Nikon) camera in a fairly remote yet scenic destination and you’ll end up with some ‘ooh and aaah’ photographs much admired by many.

But will that make you a better photographer? Unlikely. The premise of such expeditions is off base. Implied is that it’s the location that makes the photographer, not the photographer him or herself. It’s also a good way to make money for photography tour guides and travel companies. And that’s fine – as long as you are well aware of just what you are getting and just what you aren’t.

So I’m not going to follow up with this. I just need to travel a few miles from my house to find spots – like this view of Columbia Bottom Conservation Area – that give me all I need to improve (or not) my own photography.

Given, too, that I am inherently a solitary photographer who finds the company of other photographers actively inhibiting, the attraction of a shepherded tour diminishes yet further.

Photography can be an irritating hobby. In every direction there are people wanting to take your money. Again the promise is that you can somehow buy yourself into being a better photographer.

You can’t.

Yet many seem to fall into that trap, the most insidious being the equipment trap and the deliberate marketing of expensive gear as somehow ‘professional’ and thus desirable for your photographic growth. It isn’t. It’s only desirable if you are looking for rugged and long lasting equipment that is less likely to fail you than flimsier stuff. Again, nothing wrong with that. But be aware.

No, to be a better photographer you need become a better artist. To do that you need to develop a style and vision that is meaningfully yours and is always beneficially informed by knowledge of the works of great photographers. And you do that anywhere.