Monthly Archives: July 2010

Homage to Magritte

So many different kinds of light!

When I looked out my bathroom window, the sky was blazing with orange and red. I grabbed my camera and climbed the stairs to my building’s roof. The access door was locked.

I dashed down the stairs and out the back—too late. The fiery sky was gone, and this is what was left: sunset, sodium lamp, fluorescent ceiling fixture, a veritable Empire of Lights.

By René Magritte

Face to Face

A young man I met at the fountain in Silver Spring

He came straight to me, close in, straining against his mother’s hand. He looked directly up at me with interest and enthusiasm. The camera was incidental, but also an object of curiosity. We gazed at each other for a moment: the mutual recognition of explorers.

The Best Photograph I Ever Took

Last Wednesday’s post about shooting at night without a tripod brought back a potent memory for me.

Those of you who know me from other contexts may not be aware that, many careers/years ago, I took photographs for a living. I look back on the time in my life with the sort of indulgent fondness that you would have for a cute puppy that has no idea what heavy doggy responsibilities are soon to come. I was full of energy and enthusiasm, and delighted in exploring the possibilities of my tools. I shot exclusively with a pair of Nikon FM2 bodies (black, natch!), and my normal lens was a very pricey but absolutely gorgeous piece of glass, f/1.2: fast and full of luscious character.

In addition to documenting events (including *shudder* the occasional wedding) and commissioned portraits, I spent a lot of time doing street photography. I was interested in pushing the technical edge and loved trying out new materials ~ of course I did all my own black-and-white processing and printing. It’s been so long now I can’t even remember the name of it any more, but I bought some super-high-speed black-and-white film. I do remember that it was quite expensive and rather tricky to process. The results, while very grainy, were reputed to be amazing (i.e., you could actually get a picture). Since I abhorred flash, I was eager to put this miracle medium to the test.

One summer evening, I slung my camera around my neck and headed out into the nighttime street life of Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA. This was familiar territory to me. I had lived in Brookline, Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville for most of my life. I felt comfortable in the environment, and recently had taken to adding casual portraiture of total strangers to my repertoire. I just went up to people, told them I liked the way they looked, and asked if they minded if I took a photograph. I was pleasantly amazed that most people were just fine with that and enjoyed the process.

That night, as twilight passed into darkness, I knew I was in the zone. My eye was locked in. I was seeing and capturing things that gave me goosebumps. Streetlamps’ sodium glare, neon refracting through windows, and passing headlights ricocheted among the people on the sidewalk listening to buskers or the line of folks waiting to get ice cream at Steve’s, and revealed the lovers making out on a bench beneath trees. With my fast lens and the ridiculously high ISO film, I was getting it all.

As my frame count hit 30, I knew I needed to be careful and conserve the half-dozen remaining frames ~ save them for just the right subject. (Remember when frames were a precious commodity? It made photography a very different enterprise than it is today.) I found it in a man standing beneath the marquee of the Harvard Square movie theatre. He was dressed more heavily than the summer evening warranted, wearing a military-style jacket with metal buttons. His face was genial but curiously asymmetrical. The light skimmed him and separated him from the dark background of the box office kiosk in a startling way. I had never seen this before; I had never seen a photograph of this before. I went up to him and asked if I could take his picture. He said yes.

I took six photographs, carefully and deliberately, metering for the detail I wanted. As I composed the shots, talking with my subject to keep him engaged, my heart was pounding: I knew these were going to be great images. I was incredibly excited, but went through my mental checklist with every release of the shutter to make sure I was getting things right technically. As with every exposure I’d made so far that night, the images were seared into my memory and I was already formulating plans for how to print them.

I shot the 36th frame, thanked my subject, and headed for the subway. I couldn’t wait to get home and process the film. As I took my seat in the train, I pressed the release button on the bottom of the camera and turned the rewind crank to bring the film back into the cartridge. The crank spun easily and loosely in my fingers. There was no tension on the spool. My blood ran cold.

My first thought was that somehow the film had become detached from the uptake sprockets or had somehow torn. This seemed odd to me, because I had detected no difficulty with the manual advance while shooting. I determined to do nothing until I could get into my darkroom. I was concerned that I might have to open the camera back and handle the film without rewinding it first. Once home, I went straight into the darkroom. In the utter blackness, with a film development canister and spool at the ready, I opened the camera back. I pulled the cartridge spindle up by feel with my left hand and reached for the film cartridge with my right.

It wasn’t there.

I’d spent several hours making wonderful photographs. I had the contact sheet already laid out in my mind’s eye. The last five or six frames were the best pictures I’d ever taken, without question. But despite the absolute clarity and vividness with which I could picture each frame from that roll of film, they simply did not exist.

Somehow, I had gone out to shoot without actually loading the film into the camera. To this day, I have no idea how that happened. The film was still in its canister in my camera bag. For years afterward, I could have described to you ~ in detail ~ every shot on that roll of non-existent film. Mercifully, that’s no longer true.

I can hear my skeptical readers mumbling: sure, the one that got away is ALWAYS the most brilliant. I understand. All I can tell you is that, in many, many years of taking photographs I have only rarely had the experience of being perfectly present and completely locked in and entirely confident of the magical image-making taking place. And every time that’s happened, great pictures have been the result. The loss of that roll of film-that-never-was felt like the loss of an unborn child (in quality if not, of course, degree) and I cursed myself and mourned for a very long time afterward.

I also never made that particular mistake again. And these days, it’s a mistake that is impossible to make with a digital camera. If there is a heaven, though, I hope that I get to see the pictures from that night’s outing. I’d really like that.

Dancing in the Rain v2.0

[Tip o' the hat to Jason Kottke.]

This is turf dancing. I am transported by the joy, elegance, humor, and sheer beauty of this movement. I’m also impressed when I consider how much practice and creativity are required to reach this level of performance.

Look, Ma, No Tripod!

Washington National Cathedral grounds.
[ISO 1600, 1 sec. @ f/2.8]

I’m showing you these pictures not because I think they have any special aesthetic merit, but because they exist at all. They were all shot at night, hand held, and are presented with minimal post-processing. Yes, they may suffer from a lack of critical sharpness and noise. But go back and read sentence #1 of this paragraph.

Flying Buttress, Washington National Cathedral
[ISO 100, 1.6 sec @ f/5]

The point is: THEY EXIST.

You will inevitably find yourself in a situation where you want to take a photograph at night, or in an impossibly underlit situation. You will NOT have your tripod with you. Or even if you do, you may not have time to set it up properly. All is not lost. You may be able to get a usable image anyway.

Rear of the Washington National Cathedral
[ISO 400, 6 sec @ f/5]

You can take long exposure photographs without a tripod, and while most of them will not rise to the level of technical merit required for a big print, they can be successful in their own right. Here are the things you need to know:

  1. A high ISO is going to bring a lot of noise, but so is a long exposure in low light (that’s just how CMOS sensors roll, nothin’ to be done about it). So experiment, if you have the leisure, to find the sweet spot.
  2. Brace your camera against something that doesn’t move (buildings and lampposts and big trees are good). Then wedge your hands around the camera in a way that makes it hard for you to cause camera wobble.
  3. If there’s no way to brace the camera against an immovable object, use your head. Literally. Press the camera against your forehead, with your elbows close by your side, or stand comfortably centered and put it on top of your head and pull downward evenly on both sides to anchor it. Breath out and pause, then release the shutter; do not inhale and hold your breath, it’s harder to keep still. (The tower picture was taken with this method.)
  4. If you’re lucky enough to find a conveniently-placed stable surface that you can safely sit the camera on, use the timed shutter-release. That eliminates one more cause of camera movement.
  5. Do not even try an action shot unless blurred motion is what you want.
  6. Focus the camera manually if you can, or set the scene mode appropriately. Autofocus sensors do not work well in low-light situations.
  7. Take a whole bunch of exposures. Inevitably, one will be sharper than the rest. It’s a digital camera, the extra frames are free, so shoot without worrying about how many of them will be crap.

South Tower, Washington National Cathedral
[ISO 1600, 1/13 sec. @ f/2.8]

Nighttime photography without a tripod is liberating, in a weird limited way. It’s like writing a haiku, you gotta love working with the constraints. Don’t let the limitations don’t stop you from producing something beautiful and memorable, let them challenge and inspire you instead.

Project 7: The Matrix Camo-Cami

This top is knit from Panda Silk (Fern Tones) by Crystal Palace, and is 52% Bamboo, 43% Superwash Merino, and 5% Combed Silk. Which is to say, it knits beautifully, feels wonderful to the skin, and can be hand-washed. I used a pattern from Knit One Below by Elise Duvekot, which creates a softly draping fabric with little to no curl. There was no need for blocking.

I was concerned about the sizing, but it fits just fine. On the other hand, these photos are reminding me that I really need to to hit the gym.

Summer Storm

It suddenly got several stops darker in my living room. Out my window, the sky lowered and a heavy dark mass of cloud began racing across the horizon. Right on schedule: one of those summer thunderstorms I mentioned earlier.

I wish the view from my apartment had less parking lot and more sky and trees. Nonetheless, this four-minute video gives a pretty good idea of the way these things go. During this storm the temperature temporarily dropped twenty degrees. But the dew-point and the temperature pretty much converged; now that it’s warmed back up by ten degrees, it’s like pea soup out there.

[Update: It turns out that this particular storm was especially violent and destructive. A whole lot of trees came down, and many people were left without power.]

Architecture and Music

Awhile back I floated the metaphor of architecture as a musical score. In this video from TED, David Byrne explores the relationship between the context in which music is heard and kind of music that is created.

Embrace The Stone

Tree roots form a natural bezel for a rock.

Some obstacles are obdurate. They won’t be budged, they can’t be expelled. They grate.

People tell us to make lemonade from lemons, that adversity builds character. (By the way, I think I’ve got more than enough character, thank you. If I were any more of a character I wouldn’t have any friends.) There’s a whole brand of religious thinking that encourages us to glory in our crosses.

Well. I have no desire to join the pollyanna chorus. That pearl grown on a seed of irritating sand never did the oyster much good, did it?

Here’s a stone. It’s been in place for a long time, long enough for a tree’s roots to skim its edges and secure it as a bezel holds a jewel. The rock’s not going anywhere, and the roots bent their course. The facts on the ground have been acknowledged and accepted, an accommodation has taken place.

The beauty of it is in the eye of the beholder.


Late afternoon light between buildings.

It’s twilight o’clock and the writing is on the wall.