Down To (Reduced) A Glimpse Into A Woman's SoulWednesday, November 24, 2010
Today was a sad day for me as I have been trying to supplement my income by teaching in schools that pay well. There is one in particular that has thwarted my overtures for years. My only conclusion is that I am either unqualified or the opposite. And I will leave it at that.
But that will not prevent me from pursuing something that has been in my mind of late. And this is that I believe that I have knowledge in my head that would be a waste if I were to take it to my grave unshared. But the more I teach the more I realize I may have less to teach now than ever before. This is troubling and discouraging.
On the one hand when I teach photography now it does not seem to be the way it might have been when I did some 20 years ago when I shared my knowledge with eager students in BC’s interior for the Emily Carr College of Art Outreach Program. Classes began with the basics of depth of field, exposure, focal lengths, formats and the like. If one were creative you imparted the so called “rules” of photographic composition. An example is the necessary presence of a diagonal line somewhere within a photograph. This injects movement into the otherwise static photograph which by its very nature (length and width) lacks that third dimension which is depth. To teach this stuff now would result in a quick evacuation of my classroom.
When I first began in Vancouver I attempted to be up-to-date with my equipment and to somehow predict trends, or in the small pond that Vancouver was then (1975), create them. Most of my competition at the time shot 35mm and a few of the wealthier and more innovative photographers got bank loans and purchased the Hasselblad with its generous 6x6 cm format. I decided that if I wanted to compete I needed something bigger. I opted for the Mamiya RB-67. The 67 nomenclature had all to do with the fact that the format (size and shape of the negative or transparency [slide]) was 6x7 cm. I remember vividly how not long after I opened the glossy box that contained my camera on steroids, I received a call from Vancouver Magazine art director Rick Staehling who said, “Alex, I have a job for you and I would like you to try that monster of a camera you showed me weeks back.”
For anybody who has not looked into the necessary elements of design for magazines they might not know that the 35mm format’s aspect ratio (the relationship between the short and the long of it) is much longer that the usually shorter aspect ratio of magazines. This means that art director/designers will slice off sizeable chunks of a photographer’s picture to accommodate it to a page. If the picture is to appear as a full page vertical bleed (the picture occupies a whole page without any borders) that 35mm vertical will loose the person’s head or feet or other relevant elements of important anatomy.
My Mamiya’s aspect ratio with its 6x7 cm rectangular format fits just right on magazine covers and two page horizontal spreads. My Mamiya has served me well and, I might even assert, that the 6x7 format made me extremely competitive in my magazine photography work.
In that pre digital and pre-photographic-application era from whence I came, being competitive meant trying new things or inventing new things to try. This meant I tried the wrong film and tweaked it to my own purposes. It was in the late 70s that I used Kodak b+w Technical Pan Film with my 35mm camera. The film was so incredibly sharp and grain free that some of my photographs looked like they had been taken with a 4x5 inch camera. I showed Chris Dahl, also an art director at Vancouver Magazine some pictures I had taken with Kodak b+w infrared film so he assigned me to take architecture shots of homes in Shaughnessy with that film. It was Dahl who commanded me to try both front and back projection techniques and even (thank you Rosemary!) one day told me, “Alex you print all your b+w negs. Why don’t you do the same with colour? I want you to shoot some portraits using colour negative and I want you to custom print them yourself to your own specifications”
I tried ring flashes and Hollywood lighting, small soft boxes, spotlights (Fresnel and optical) projected scenes with metal gobos, etc and etc!
But at the end of the day (at what looks like a twilight of a career) the competitive technique for me is now simply eye contact in my portraits.
I wrote about it recently here. I called it a glimpse into a man’s soul. It was only yesterday that Vancouver Magazine editor, Gary Ross looked at one of those eye contact pictures of mine and asked me the question, “How do you know when you’ve got it?" Much has been written about Art Masters painting portraits where their subjects’ eyes follow you around the room. I have seen paintings on velvet that do the same. There may be even a scientific formula for achieving that sticky look. Perhaps there is some equivalent scientific explanation for explaining eye contact photographs that haunt and those that don’t.
In the picture of Lauren here that I took with my iPhone I keep instructing Lauren to look into a tiny little black hole that is on the left, upper corner of my phone when I point it at her. And yet the picture here satisfies my requirement that this is a little bit more than a snapshot. It is a portrait. It is a portrait that peers into her soul. Does it?
I answered Gary Ross’s question, “I know I have it because I have been doing it for too long not to know.”