Regular readers of my blog will be familiar with love for Canada’s Sugar Beach. I first started my Sugar Beach series of photographs last winter, capturing it when it looked like an unearthly landscape, so hidden was it in mist, ice and fog. It is still one of the most amazing urban landscapes I’ve shot. Being back there in the summer I was greeted by vibrant greens and blue water to complement the sand and beautiful pink parasols. This past weekend I decided to head out to Sugar Beach again. [Read more…]
Gordon Parks: Photographer, Musician, Writer, Director
Sometimes you come across an individual whose life was such an inspiration, you wonder why most people have never heard of them, or at least have never had the opportunity to learn of such a person’s accomplishments. The photographer Gordon Parks is such a person and I’m dedicating this blog post to him. If you’ve heard the name, then I’m pleased. If you know of his life and impact on photography, then I’m delighted. If you’ve never heard of Gordon Parks, allow me to educate you.
Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912. His parents were farmers, and Parks was forced to live his childhood under the shadow of segregation, as was the common way of life back then. He attended a segregated elementary school where blacks were banned from sports or social activities, and when he expressed a desire to attend college, his teacher simply dismissed the idea as “a waste of money”.
When Parks was 11 three white boys tossed him into a river knowing that he couldn’t swim. He survived. His mother died when he was 14, and he was sent to live with relatives, but pretty swiftly Parks found himself homeless. He found work at a gentlemen’s club, and furthered his education by reading books from the club’s library.
By the age of 25 Parks had found his way to Seattle, where he developed an interest in photography and bought his first camera. He began work as a portrait artist in Chicago, but won a scholarship allowing him to work under the photographer Roy Stryker. It was during this time that Parks created his most iconic image – a black woman with a mop in one hand, a brush in the other, standing in front of the American flag. He named this piece American Gothic, Washington, D.C., after the famous Grant Wood painting American Gothic. At first Stryker hated this photograph, calling it an indictment of America (which, in my opinion, it was) however he encouraged Parks to keep working with Ella Watson, the woman in the photograph. [Read more…]
As a Fine art photographer, I always strive to capture the unusual. Sometimes, the unusual aspect of a composition is hidden in plain sight – such as my recent photographs of beaches and the Toronto Harbourfront covered by the invasion of this year’s excessively bleak winter.
Other times, the unusual quality of an art print is not so readily apparent, and such prints conceal stories beneath what you can see, or display something familiar in a way that people who are accustomed to the subject of the shot will look at and be surprised to see it displayed in a way that’s unfamiliar to them.
This is one of my reasons for composing this art photograph of Baldwin Street in Kensington Market, here in Toronto. There seems to be such a sense of bleakness about this shot – it being in monochrome helps that, of course. Everywhere you look you seem to see gloom and emptiness – the lone figure on the right walking towards you; what appears to be a broken neon sign in the top right-hand corner, the sign on the left announcing “No Entry”. Even what you can see of the sky is just a big grey cloud bearing down on you.
The most delicious aspect of this art composition is the story behind it – and it’s a story that will only be readily apparent to those who are familiar with Baldwin Street, as the street is usually one that is extremely busy. I was out early one Sunday morning when I found myself walking down Baldwin Street with almost no one else around. I quickly jumped into the road (checking for cars first!), spent a few moments obtaining the correct composition, then took the picture. While my initial intention had been to wait for the guy walking towards me to pass by me (so as to get an almost empty street) while composing the shot I decided it would work better with him in it. So I was pleased I managed to capture him walking on the right as I feel it gives the shot that one tiny aspect of character that’s really important.
To illustrate the point I’m trying to make, I’ve chosen the following quotation by the American photographer Ralph Gibson:
“Even though fixed in time, a photograph evokes as much feeling as that which comes from music or dance. Whatever the mode – from the snapshot to the decisive moment to multi-media montage – the intent and purpose of photography is to render in visual terms feelings and experiences that often elude the ability of words to describe. In any case, the eyes have it, and the imagination will always soar farther than was expected.”
Words may help to create pictures, but a photograph is a picture, and most of the time a picture is much stronger than words. Sometimes though, it’s hard to capture the precise aspect of what you are trying to capture as a photographer, as both the moment and the opportunity have to be there. With words, you can create anything as you leave it to the imagination of the reader to conjure the image. I could have described Baldwin Street as an abandoned thoroughfare, but hardly anyone would be able to picture it in precise detail. This is why the photograph on this occasion surpasses any image that words could convey, and I was pleased I was there to snag the opportune moment.
This is what continues to makes photography such an exciting pastime and profession for me. There is no limit to what my camera can capture. The world is full of moments – some apparent, some quirky, some unexpected … there really are no limits, and it’s my joy to be able to share them with people who appreciate everything that even the simplest image can portray.
It’s difficult to put a precise finger on when photography became an art form. It’s commonly accepted that American photographer Alfred Stieglitz was the first photographer who attempted to establish photography as an accepted form of artistic expression rather than just as a means of recording images. Stieglitz was also a modern art promoter, and it was his efforts that really propelled photographs to become regarded as art.
For this blog post, however, I am going to concentrate on one of the most famous and influential photographers of all time, namely Emmanuel Radnitsky or, to give him his more familiar non de plume, Man Ray. Man Ray was an American artist, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, but he spent most of his life in Paris. He was born in Philadelphia in 1890, and displayed a keen artistic temperament from his earliest days, but mainly as a painter. In July 1921 Man Ray moved to Paris where he settled in the Montparnasse district, an area of France’s capital favoured by renowned artists such as Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp.
It was in Paris that Man Ray’s career as a visionary photographer really exploded. He explored imagery like no other photographer had done before him, being both enigmatic and playful. In one of his most famous works, “Le Violin d’Inges”, he had his lover, Kiki de Montparneasse, pose naked with black shapes matching those of the f-holes of a violin attached to her back. The shape of Kiki’s body perfectly mirrored the shape of a violin.
Man Ray was never the perfectionist, concentrating on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’. In one quotation he said:
"Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’, while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why’. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information."
I like to approach my own photography in same manner. When I see a photograph, I’m more interested in why the photograph was arrived at than the technicalities of how it was arrived at. For me, the interesting aspect is the story behind any particular art photograph. After all, there must be a reason why a photographer chose to take a particular shot at a particular time. And everyone has a story. We love hearing and telling stories. If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know I love to explain my thinking and stories behind any particular photograph, rather than go into any depth about the amount of exposure I used, which aperture I chose or the shutter speed I selected. They’re important but they pale in comparison to the inspiration behind a photograph or work of art. When you see a great painting, do you ask the artist which oils he used, how thick was his brush or whether he worked for hours at a time or worked in short spells with plenty of breaks?
Take my art photograph “Spadina Station”, for example. I hope people are interested in why I composed this shot, and not how. To me, this photograph displays the juxtaposition of what is manufactured and what is natural. Almost everywhere you look in the photograph you see the uniform and the regular. Straight lines upon straight lines, all parallel to one another. Not just the station itself, but the buildings behind it. It creates a fantastic grid of regularity and uniformity – this is how mankind tends to work. Just here and there are irregular blotches – the tree just visible from the side of the station, the odd patches of snow and the dampness on the station walls. This is how nature works – irregularly and randomly. I think it’s fascinating how the human mind makes perceptions as we can appreciate both uniformity (we associate beauty with symmetry, which is why good-looking people tend to have symmetrical faces) and the kind of variation you see in natural wonders.
As an art photographer, I can never be sure when inspiration is likely to strike, which is something that definitely appeals to me. Just like Man Ray, I think I have a curious nature. While I may go out with a particular art print in mind I like to be surprised, and never can be totally sure what kind of image my camera will capture next and what story will unfold. That’s just the way I like it!
Sometimes our eyes can fool us. How many times do we glimpse something that’s unusual “out of the corner of our eyes” only for it to revealed as something quite mundane once we’ve focused properly?
Of course as I work in a visual field I need to know how vision works. Did you know that a lot of what we see isn’t actually there? Your brain doesn’t have the time to process all the information your eyes tell it, so it gets a little lazy, and only processes things that have moved. If you stare at one single fixed point for more than a few seconds you eventually stop seeing what is “there” and instead see what was “there” when your brain decided to take a short break!
So – sometimes seeing is not believing. Take my art print of the Marina above. You’d perhaps be forgiven for thinking this art photograph was a commission for a holiday brochure. Notice how the bright sunshine etches strong shadows along the path leading forwards. Can’t you just imagine strolling along that path, then continuing your walk across the beach,your toes digging into pristine white sand?
If you’ve been following my blog of late, then I know that you haven’t been fooled. If you dig your toes into the “pristine white sand” of the “beach” ahead of you you’re quite likely to lose them to frost-bite! The beach is a thick layer of ice and snow which has formed on the water as winter seems in no hurry to let Toronto loose from its icy grip. This was not some warm summer’s day – it was very cold and very windy. I love the juxtaposition created by this shot – clear blue sky; the kind of shadows you’d expect to be created by a scorching sun, both contrasted by that band of whiteness that could be sand, but is actually ice. It’s my job as a photographer to create art photographs and art prints that compel the viewer to take several glimpses before they can work out just what it is, precisely, that is going on.
When you place together several contrasting elements it really does reinforce the theme of a photograph, and makes it much stronger. As the cinematographer Conrad Hall – who worked on such films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Road to Perdition – once said:
“Contrast is what makes photography interesting.”
I can certainly buy into that. The photographer Ansel Adams, whom I have spoken about before, said:
“Our lives at times seem a study in contrast … love & hate, birth & death, right & wrong … everything seen in absolutes of black & white. Too often we are not aware that it is the shades of grey that add depth & meaning to the starkness of those extremes.”
As an illustration of this I’ve also produced a monochrome print of “Marina Winter 3” here. The same image looks so different, and it is not just the absence of colour that does this. The railings and the shadows really do seem to draw you in, and you feel you are being sucked into the photograph itself. I’m quite proud to have achieved such a three-dimensional effect on a two-dimensional image. The lamps and the shadows they cast helps create a series of frames that adds to the depth. The effect is also there on the colour version, but I don’t feel it’s as intense, so I guess Adams is correct – it is the shades of grey that add depth and meaning.
I don’t know which version I prefer – monochrome or colour. I think I’m drawn to the colour as it suggests a promise that brighter, sunnier and much warmer days are finally on their way. But I do love the moodiness of the monochrome version. What about you? Monochrome or bold bright colour?
As the famous English playwright and all-round entertainer Noël Coward once sang, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out In The Midday Sun” – I now have my own version: “Mad Photographers and Brits Go Out In The Midday Snow!”
I embarked upon my latest photographic adventure with a definite purpose in mind. Photographs are called “still images” for a definite reason. They freeze moments, as much as winter freezes my fingers as they hold my camera. I wanted to see if I could capture a winter snowstorm in full flow, giving the resulting art photograph the definite impression of what it is like walking along in the midst of a billowing cloud of fat snowflakes. Good weather is always associated with serenity and calmness – basically, it’s just the sun beating down on you, or perhaps a playful, cooling breeze. With bad weather, on the other hand, you see calamity and chaos. Whirling winds, rainstorms that pepper your face with pin-pricking drops of water, or blizzards where your vision becomes jammed with blotches of icy whiteness. Bad weather almost always involves motion, and it is this motion that I intended to capture.
The resulting art photograph you can see above, and I’m really proud of what I’ve been able to achieve. The photograph is made up of three bracketed shots taken at different exposures – one correctly exposed, one darker (underexposed) and one lighter (over exposed). This is called “Exposure bracketing.” I then merged them in post-production using a technique called tone mapping. While I won’t go into technical details this enabled me to make a more satisfactory photograph in terms of what I wanted to achieve, a dreamy-looking snow scene. Tone-mapping is useful for when a scene has stark contrasts. Although this snow scene was a very stark white (with little to no contrast at all), using tone mapping enabled me to bring out the darker shades to produce the complete effect.
I really like what I’ve managed to achieve. The elongation of the snow drops as they fall to their doom suggests motion to me, and gives the photograph a vibrant feel. The patterns they’ve etched on the boats that are moored along the jetty are quite fascinating, if you look closely. The buildings on the left and far in the distance are shrouded by the snowstorm – these buildings are (to the left) the Canada Malting Silos which have been part of Toronto’s heritage since 1928, and in the distance the Harbourfront Community Centre at Bathurst Quay, not to be confused with the Harbourfront Centre on the East side of Queens Quay. Interestingly, the whole Harbourfront Centre was built as the result of a bit of a “sulk” by Toronto after the Canadian federal government had pumped money into Montreal for Expo 67 and the 1976 Summer Olympics. The City of Toronto decided to build Harbourfront Centre to boost the city’s industry and tourism and demanded the government help out financially. After all the money handed to Montreal, the government could hardly say no!
I also have a colour version of “Winter Snowstorm” here. I say colour, but such is the completeness of the snow there is hardly any colour to be found! It’s almost as if someone has taken my monochrome print, started to add a little colour in patches, then swiftly become bored! It’s amazing how different the scene looks, just with those little hints of colour here and there. I don’t honestly know which version I prefer, but I do think the monochrome prints suits the title a little better.
This winter hasn’t been great for those who prefer sunny days here in Toronto, but it’s certainly been a bit of an adventure for me as an art print photographer. I’m looking forwards to spring and the photographic opportunities that better weather should bring, but one thing is for sure, I’ve unlikely ever to forget the Toronto winter of 2013/14, and nether, I assume, will many of my fellow Torontonians!