The Prompter Room


(It’s been a while since I’ve added commentary to these regular prompts, but this week’s unprecedented political actions by a certain president and/or his administration have elicited a visceral response that, as a writer, I must write about.  So that’s your heads-up: some might consider what follows a rant, but it’s really more of a call to action.  I apologize in advance if it’s a little disjointed.)

The First Amendment is not an accident.  My deeply held conviction, supported with a lot of evidence, is what might do this country in to where we cease to exist as a vital democracy, as a Constitutional democracy, is not terrorism or a weak economy but what will do us in is a secret government.

Bob Woodward

This is hard to write.  My thoughts and distress are swirling so swiftly in my brain it’s hard to corral them into some semblance of written sense.


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On the floodplain


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Pylons on the floodplain by Richard Keeling on

Last Saturday after an invigorating morning marching with the Women’s March in St. Louis, I headed out to more sparsely populated regions.

Mostly it was to enjoy a natural area and get that reassuring sense of gravity that such places always provide even in the face of a clearly provoking political situation such as we have now.

For I have been disturbed, sleepless even, at the thought of how low the Presidency will be brought and how much respect the institution will lose. For this will happen. It’s already happening.

But I can forget this, for a little while at least, while walking the floodplain. The ground beneath my feet will survive as it has already through the massive river flooding that at times put everywhere I stood and looked at beneath water. There’s a pole at the confluence about 20 feet high that represents the 1993 high water mark. Yet the trees survived this and thrived anew in the silt enriched earth once the waters receded. Thinking of these things adds a little perspective. People can deny reality, but reality has a sneaky way to catching up with you sooner or later. The earth endures and will do so long after I’m gone just as it did before I was born. I find this thought reassuring.

A Pointless Journey


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So I finally got around to watching the complete trilogy of movies comprising “The Hobbit”. This after numerous – and I mean dozens – of viewings of “The Lord Of The Rings”, a set of movies that continues to captivate and enthrall.

I’d read enough to be forewarned that “The Hobbit” films were not up to that standard. What surprised me was how far below they fell.

On the surface, everything seemed to be in place. Martin Freeman is a fine actor and well suited to the young Bilbo. Many of those who had done well in the Rings trilogy returned. The story itself from the book was alright. Not a carefully constructed epic, but enough for perhaps a good movie.

Instead we got three, and, much in the manner of butter scraped too thinly on bread, a description Bilbo used in “The Fellowship Of The Ring” to describe the effect of the ring’s possession upon him, there is simply not enough sustenance to carry the set.

Furthermore, far too much of the “Rings” trilogy’s script is recycled, sentence for sentence, in these newer movies to far lesser effect. Plot elements alien to the book are introduced, mimicking those of the “Rings” to the point of parody. The engagement with Sauron is perfunctory, falling into cliche and pastiche and wholly unsatisfactory. Indeed, it was at this point in “The Battle Of The Five Armies” that I gave up on my second viewing of the set deeming it simply uninvolving.

Uninvolving. Sad really. The entire exercise was a waste of potential. Perhaps a single feature length film could have been put together that would have satisfied. Some of the scenes, chiefly those involving Smaug the dragon, were well done, although elements (such as the melting gold dwarf king) were simply ridiculous. The special effects were technically superior to those of the “Rings” trilogy, yet came across as somehow less satisfying through overuse and frankly absurd situations.

Some have compared the failure of “The Hobbit” to Lucas’s similarly poorly regarded “Star Wars” prequel trilogy.  This is valid. Similar faults plague both sets of movies. Less interesting characters, less charismatic and convincing acting performances, story lines that sprawl and dissipate dramatic interest.

Shortly after I’d viewed “The Hobbit” trilogy, I watched the latest “Mad Max” movie, “Fury Road”. The contrast was stark and wholly unflattering to Jackson’s films. Here instead was a tightly edited, focused, and completely enthralling fantasy film that managed to be both viscerally exciting and thought provoking at the same time.

“The Hobbit” turned out to add nothing to “The Lord Of The Rings”. Fortunately, the first set of films is strong enough that nothing was taken away. That is a relief. But I can’t help but wonder at what might have been.

Analysis of a photograph


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Sand and silt from the Missouri River by Richard Keeling on

I spend a lot of time writing in generalities. Photography is very amenable to such pontification, after all, it is an art and art inspires – if that’s the right word – a lot of prolix writing of limited distinction.

But does that stop me? No. After all, this is on my time and my dime (if I actually got paid for any of this).

But for once I want to get a bit more specific. As in the analysis of single photograph.

This was taken by the Missouri River in St. Louis County. I was standing on the sand and silt left behind by a drop in the water level and doing so from an unusual vantage. I was on the edge of Pelican Island, a small nature reserve normally separated from Sioux Passage Park by a deep channel of the main river. But on Monday afternoon the drop in the river level had left only a small fast flowing channel dividing the two, a channel, moreover, that was dotted with rocks and stones. Enough for me to hop, with only one slip into the shoe-filling water, from the park to the island.

So the view that presented itself to me, as I stood ruefully considering my soggy sock and pickling foot, was not I sight I’d seen before. Nor was it a sight I was likely to see again unless I got lucky.

So perhaps it was fortunate that I had three cameras with me, one digital, one with color film, one with black and white. The films remain undeveloped; this photograph is digital.

So what about it?

It’s a basic landscape designed to highlight the revealed sand and place in context with the river. Why did I choose to feature so much sand in the foreground?

Two reasons. Firstly I wanted to emphasis the extent of the newly revealed beach. All that you see there is normally under water. On its own, this could have been uninteresting beyond making that point. But the sand has its own appeal, and much of this is due to the low angle of the nearly setting sun. The shadows highlighted the ripples left in the silt by the water flow and the dog and footprints turning what would have been a relatively featureless view into something more interesting. I photographed a trail of fresh footprints, this acted as marker of time and as a marker of movement, my movement. In this way, the picture becomes personalized – a critical component in imparting value to the image.

Alone, the sand would have given the picture an interesting aspect but it would have been location independent. I didn’t want that. Part of the value of the photograph comes from its unusual situation and including the river background provides that context. Context in terms of place and in terms of situation. The water is low; that is clear from the picture. Again the light enhanced the far background, bringing out both the bare trees on the St. Charles County bank and the railway bridge running parallel to U.S. Route 67 road bridge.

The result is a time (winter) and situation (low water) stamped photograph of a interesting location with strong personal resonance.

That’s really all I want out of a picture.  It doesn’t have to mean anything to anyone else, but it needs to be an image I can return to ten or twenty years from now and find equally interesting. It doesn’t have to be an artistic triumph or a technical tour de force; if it is, those qualities are coincidental. Truthfully. I really don’t have it in me to work it any other way, not because I couldn’t (I probably could if I really tried) but because that would move me away from what I enjoy about photography.

Looking Back



Brighton Station 1980 by Richard Keeling on

Well, it is that time of year after all. A time for retrospection and resolution.

I have a couple of confessions about photography to make. I’ve tried to deny these thoughts, but as time goes by, I find myself only confirming them more strongly than ever. They are:

  • I like my own work better than others.
  • I really do not like the work of most other photographers.

There are clear disadvantages to such thinking. It take me right out of the community of photographers where the essential ‘in’ is to like, demonstrably so, their work and to hope, via some sort of polite quid pro quo, that others will like yours. It encourages isolation. It works against making any effort to put on some form of public display.

Note that these confessions do not ascribe any sort of artistic worth to my own work. It may be awful or passable but in either case it doesn’t matter – I still like it. As to the work of others, well, in this case artistry comes first. Which, as I said, limits what I like to pretty much the established or upcoming art photographers. Popular photography, on the whole, leaves me stone cold. More than stone cold in truth, repelled is more like it.

This is why, if anyone looks at my online portfolio, you will find only a few images that fall into what one might call the popular look. Few of these were intentionally photographed, usually, almost entirely by accident, I ended up with an approximation of a popular style. Displaying these elicited precisely the same sets of multiple likes and loves that one might expect but only a very rare few cases did my own appreciation of the image match that of others. But I still put them up; some part of me still longs to join the in-crowd and bask in that kind of glory.

But leaving that aside, this photographic solipsism also has advantages. Firstly, although many of my photographs fail me touch me despite my best efforts, enough do. The ones that do continue to touch me, even as years pass by and my own photographic efforts evolve and change. This are the pictures I go back to and I draw real sustenance from them. There may be technical reasons within the photograph for this, but those alone are not enough. There has to be an emotional resonance. It make take no more than the jogging of some long lost memory for this to happen, and the picture itself might be unattractive to another observer. Beyond unattractive, simply meaningless. But for me, it counts.

After all this time, I now realise that’s all I want from my photography. It was there from the beginning. So why did I spent years chasing the photographic pipe dreams? Not to mention spending a fortune on unnecessary photographic equipment.

Oh well.


In Another land


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In Another Land by Richard Keeling on

In a world where a button press in Lightroom or Photoshop can apply an infinite variety of tones and colors to any image, why would I spend time and energy using a strange, uncertain film like Lomochrome Turquoise to generate a weird looking image like this one?

Precisely because it is uncertain. All I do to control the colors is find a subject and the light to illuminate it. ‘Control’ is a very loose word here. The amount of light striking the film generates the unique color balance and if you are looking for a reproducible look, well, look elsewhere. This is a once off photograph and all the more valuable because it is such.

Randomness is a well established tool, understood by artists and mystifying to technicians.  For technicians control is paramount. Digital photography has been a gift to such thinkers, but just as much effort went into trying to tame film photography too.

In many cases, one wants a consistent and reproducible look. But it’s far too easy to get hung up on this and to squelch the discoveries that an aleatory approach provides.

So I deliberately embrace techniques that shunt me out of the conventional. By no means are all the results worthwhile, but enough are.

I don’t consider this an unlearned or naive approach. As I indicated above, it’s pretty much mainstream in the world of real art. But it does remind me, sadly, just how many photographers are not artists at all.



I Liked Them All When I Did Them


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Property For Sale by Richard Keeling on

Although I have strong views about the relative worth of photography, views that ultimately only really reflect my assessment of what makes art worthwhile, I am perfectly willing to suspend or modify them when it comes to looking at my own work.

For I don’t take pictures with art in mind, I take them because an interesting view has presented itself. The results can be variable. What seemed interesting one day might seem mundane the next and yet again interesting further down the road. That’s why I keep most of my photographs and periodically review them. Storage is cheap these days.

But even the most artistically uninteresting of my own photographs can have great merit when considered differently. Most importantly as a record of history, place and people. I’ve lived long enough that many dead faces stare out at me from my archives. Such pictures work to confirm – or deny – memories. The most valuable, unsurprisingly, are those from my youth. There aren’t many of those, but there are enough to fill out my backstory.

Everything I photograph today, even the pictures that I have embraced primarily as art, works on the same level and their worth increases proportional as time passes by. We tend to get so caught in the present that it’s easy to forget or dismiss this, but it’s crucial to the value of a photograph. In these days of rapid fire Instagram and Facebook photos, catching, seemingly, every whim of our lives, it becomes even harder to look at this clutter and see historical gold buried within. But it’s there, and should be saved. Unfortunately, with so many of us trusting our visual record to the bits and bytes of today’s technology and the business model of social media, we have lost a lot of control and are more vulnerable to be being erased that we might think. That’s why it’s so important to make at least some prints of your work and keep those with the same dedication that we used to keep the prints from the days of film. But making prints requires extra effort, and often the next moment had crept up on us pushing aside what just happened. And then it gets forgotten, the cell phone gets lost, the memory card formatted by mistake, and the social media platform shuts down. Saving these memories happens less than it should, and a lot less than it must.

But back to picture taking. I called this post, ‘I Liked Them When I Did Them’ and in truth, with a far smaller number of exceptions than one might think, that’s true of all my photography. I do look back and see every artistic mistake possible written clear and upfront in my images, but that really doesn’t matter too much. Always there are some – a few – that really hold up however you choose to judge them.

That’s why I photograph.

In and Out of the Light


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Into the Light by Richard Keeling on

It’s a little ironic – I suppose I might say more than a little – that, as I survey a basement filled with cameras and lenses, I have finally begun to embrace imperfection as an underlying aesthetic rather than as an annoyance to be actively squelched.

I spent a lot of time and a lot of money collecting the most technically perfect equipment only to find that the technically perfect results I obtained were of almost completely devoid of artistry.

Why did I waste so much time and effort on this?

Partly it’s the fault of the photographic community. Far too many photographers are technicians and not artists. As a beginner, you don’t really grasp this. You in thrall of those who spout the jargon and use the most impressive (as in lauded) equipment. You look at your little consumer camera with its kit lens and feel quite inadequate. You feel that way because you’ve already fallen into the biggest trap of all, the technology trap. The technology trap exists solely to promote camera equipment sales and as such it is relentlessly encouraged. You learn that so-called ‘professionals’ use expensive equipment, for that is what a professional is supposed to use. Never mind that the improvements offered by a $2000 lens over a $200 lens will be invisible to most eyes, the fact that a pixel-peeper magnifying his or her screen to 100% can see better sharpness right in the corner of a frame (where no one looks anyway) is used as a weird justification for such upgrades.

It’s pathetic really. None of this has anything to do with art – and by that I mean real art, not the ‘fine art’ garbage promulgated by the technicians as some sort of pinnacle of achievement. The sort of crap that dominates popular photography sites but would never be seen in an art museum or gallery because it really is empty of any meaning or soul whatsoever.

I really feel in a way for the technician photographer. Take them to an art museum and they are the type that sneer at modern art – ‘could be done by a child’, ‘this is worth that much?’ – I’ve heard this and worse over and over again. It’s a emptiness of imagination, a rigidity of thought, and an outlook of frightening blindness.

I can’t stand these people – as photographers that is, in other respects they can be lovely people. They represent a dead end. Fortunately, there’s no law saying I have to associate with them. Give me a child with a cheap cell phone and you’ll get more interesting pictures than any number of technicians with their supermegapixel sized sensors and their lenses with their near perfect MTF (modulation transfer function) graphs.

So back to imperfection. Such as in these two black and white photographs from Henry, Illinois, on a foggy night just before Thanksgiving. Photographs taken with a very old (1959 vintage) manual focus lens. Complete with flare and ghosting, on an obsolete medium (film) pushed to its limit by overdeveloping. Full of grain and optical flaws, but, to me, totally lovely in their moodiness. To get this in digital would take hours of Photoshop tweaking or using as shortcut some film emulation routine. And even then it would not be the same, and all the time you’d be rebelling against the imperfection because you’ve been trained to think that imperfection is bad. Brainwashed really.

Breaking free of this has been the greatest and most important shift in my photographic outlook since I began. It’s not a guarantee of better photographs, but it’s a damn certain guarantee of more interesting ones.

Out of the Light by Richard Keeling on



Still Videos


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From Popular Photography, January 1988 edition:

“Electronic Imaging Today” [September] aroused my curiosity. I’m interested in learning more about still video systems. What is a still video? How does it create an image or print? And how might it practicably be used? Will it eventually replace the single-lens-reflex camera?  Robert A Yanckello, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania

Beginning with our July 1986 issue (see “The Future Arrives,” page 62) we have been closely following developments in electronic still photography. Extensive coverage can be found in “1987 New Producr Review” (November 1986), “Taking The Fifth” (April 1987) and “Gear of the Year” (May). As this new imaging technology evolves, rest assured that we’ll continue to keep you up-to-date on the latest news and products – George Schaub

These days given the ubiquity of digital imaging products, it’s hard to envisage just how strange the new technology was in its infancy in the 1980s but this letter and its response show very nicely the sense of novelty that surrounded the technology at the time. The terminology wasn’t even settled – electronic still photography sounds absurdly anachronistic today even though it’s a perfect apt description. The letter writer is wondering – will this technology replace film SLRs. Would it indeed? The speed of the replacement only really revved up in the early 2000s, but now it’s complete. Film SLRs are a niche product for a miniscule proportion of camera users.

It’s an interesting exercise to look at the conventional wisdom at any period in the past for the assumptions that are born out and those which never come to fruition. In 1988, no one really understood how completely and rapidly photography would be renewed. The camera manufacturers who were capable to switching to digital equipment did just fine, but the entire industry built up around film manufacture, processing and printing collapsed. Easy to see in hindsight, but not so clear at the time. It rarely is.

Today, we are seeing a small scale revival in film photography. It remains a niche product, but, in much the same way that vinyl records have made a comeback, the tactile qualities of this older analog technology are attracting people turned off by the ephemeral world of digital processes. I think that is a good thing. When photography first became popular, portrait painters saw their profession gutted but the art lived on. Who knows what common feature of today’s life will meet a similar fate? Gasoline stations perhaps. We’ll see, but I bet it will more of a surprise than not.

Photographing for myself


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At the Art Museum by Richard Keeling on

I am, like most others these days, a daily user of social media. Just like this site, in truth. Facebook, Twitter, Cowbird, various photography specializing sites too.

But the reality is that I am no good at playing that game. By that, I mean that although I contribute – to a greater or lesser extent – original material to the web, I do not get involved beyond the most limited extent in the social process. I rarely visit other people’s pages, express a ‘like’ or a ‘love’ or devote myself to interaction. For me, the web is simply a place to park my images and words and I have no interest at all in the quid pro quo of following or being followed by others.

In this way, I continue a self-contained approach to my photography. I draw my influences from my observations and from my studies of art in all its forms. I express myself in whatever way happens to involve me at that particular moment with no regard to generating any interest.

Which is not say that I am indifferent to interest. I keep an eye on the likes and loves that come my way, and I enjoy it when they do. But I have never made any effort to cultivate them beyond simply existing.

For me, this is crucial. My worst and least satisfying work has always been made when I am trying to do something that I think will please others. Such work has no connection to my soul and consequently leaves me empty. I perhaps could do it for money, but it would always be as utilitarian as that implies.

Sometimes I wonder whether my indifference to the game of social media is weird. Most of my friends are caught up in it. But I believe it gives me freedom. It certainly gives me a lot more time to devote to what I regard as more satisfying occupations. Like writing this article, for instance.