A Poet, A Cynic, A Conqueror & A $10 Bet
Saturday, January 04, 2014
|Margaret Visser - Hotel Vancouver Sept 1994|
The blog below appeared before on October 26, 2006. I am placing it again with more details. One reason is that for once in this bleak January, Rosemary thinks we should skip Mexican cultural cities and perhaps go to a Mexican beach and do nothing. Which had me thinking of Pindar the Poet or was that Diogenes the cynic? If you want to find out how that came about that a Mexican beach would make me instantly think of Alexander the Great in Corinth or was that Thebes? - read on. I lifted the 2006 blog from a backpage Vancouver Sun Rear Window
which appeared for a few years on Thursdays. It was created by Queue Magazine editor Charles Campbell who thought that Rear Window could be a vehicle for me. I would write about a photograph from the past (in this case Sept 1994) with an event of the week October 5-12 2000 as Margaret Visser was in town to read from her book The Geometry of Love - Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church.
A nice foil to a good mystery is a book of essays. In recent years, Henry Petroski has expounded on ferris wheels (Remaking the World - Adventures in Engineering
), Stephen Jay Gould has shown how natural selection has prevented anybody from batting 400 over a season since Ted Williams in 1941 ( Full House
)and I have learned all about the Swiss Army in John McFee's La Place de la Concorde Suisse.
For essays on food (and chewing gum), nobody tops South African-born Toronto/Barcelona/South of France resident Margaret Visser. In her 1994 book The Way We Are
, I found out why Pythagoras commanded his vegetarian followers, "Abstain from beans!" And in September of that year I had the good fortune of taking Visser's photograph in her room at the Hotel Vancouver.
We discussed her mention in her book of the first sunbathing scene in French Literature. In 1902, the hero of André Gide's book L'Immoraliste
took off his clothes and lay down in the sun.
This made me remember the first recorded incident in history of someone taking a sun bath. I had learned of this from my wonderful teacher, Brother Hubert Koeppen at St Edward's High School in Austin, Texas. Brother Hubert had instilled a love of history in me that had all started with such facts.
I asked Visser if she knew of that mention in ancient history involving Alexander the Great and Pindar the Poet in Thebes. Visser answered, "You have it wrong - It was Alexander and Diogenes the Cynic in Corinth." We made a $10 bet.
She wrote her address in my copy of The Way We Were
and it was an address on Euclid Street in Toronto. I also noticed that the book's dedication was in classic Greek. I knew I was in trouble.
A few weeks later, a neat handwritten letter arrived from Euclid Street. Included was a copy of a page from Plutarch's Lives
in both English and Greek. It read,
"....a vote was passed to make an expedition against Persia with Alexander, and he was proclaimed their leader. Thereupon many statesmen and philosophers came to him with congratulations, and he expected Diogenes of Sinope also, who was tarrying in Corinth, would do likewise. But since the philosopher took not the slightest notice of Alexander, and continued to enjoy his leisure in the suburb of Craneion, Alexander went to see him; and found him lying in the sun. And when that monarch addressed him with greetings, and asked him if he wanted anything, 'Yes, 'said Diogenes, stand a little out of my sun.'" I sent Visser a cheque for $10.
I am about to re-read one of my favourite books. This is Visser's The Geometry of Love - Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in and Ordinary Church.
This beautiful book about Sant'Agnese fuori le mura in Rome is a biography of a church that is not all that ordinary. One of the floors in the canonry of the 1,350-year-old building collapsed on April 12, 1855 and 105 people, including Pope Pius IV, fell through to the floor below. No one was injured.
For me entering a synagogue, a mosque, a Buddhist temple or my neighbourhood church will never be the same after having read this book. But Visser was up to her old tricks (Brother Hubert would have approved) in gently teaching us Greek and Latin and how they have put an indelible stamp in our language Would you ever guess that it was the virtuous St Peter who was the source of the word scandal?
Simon, son of Jonah, himself nicknamed Peter, "the stone, "was later to comment on the relationship between the crucifixion of Jesus (his "rejection") and his status now as "the corner stone" of the new view of the world. People who do not believe that Jesus is the Christ foretold will not think him a "cornersone" at all, Peter wrote; they will find him a "stumbling-block." The latter expression in Greek is petra skandalou
, the origin of the English "scandal"; it means a stone that people fall over. Page 83, The Geometry of Love.
Are Cameras Dead?
Thursday, January 02, 2014
|Rebecca under the Thuja - iPhone 3G|
My very good friend and mentor, Raúl Guerrero Montemayor (he died early this year
in Mexico City)
used to define himself as, “Soy híbrido.” He meant that because he had been
educated in Switzerland
and spoke more than 8 languages he did not feel that he was from any particular
country. His choice of híbrido was specialized but by his early 70s the blonde,
blue-eyed man considered himself a Filipino.
The purpose of the
above paragraph is to explain how languages treat words differently. If you say
hybrid in English you might not think about a
specialized-bred-in-a-nursery rose but
perhaps a Toyota Prius.
It may have been some
12 years ago when I spotted in London
Drugs a toaster that had a built-in radio. Was it a radio with a toaster or the
other way around?
Today between the
clunky, heavy and expensive Digital Single Lens Reflex Cameras and the point
and shoots there is an in-between camera, the so-called mirrorless cameras. My
Fuji X-E1 is one of these “hybrids” perhaps?
Recently I was sent an
interesting article from the New Yorker called Goodbye Cameras by Craig Mod. It
is a startling essay in which Mod predicts the demise of all cameras and that
these will be replaced by an awesome iPhone 6s in a very near future. He ends
his essay with this:
Tracing the evolution
from the Nikon 8008 to the Nikon D70 to the GX1, we see cameras transitioning
into what they were bound to become: networked lenses. Susan Sontag once said,
“While there appears to be nothing that photography can’t devour, whatever
can’t be photographed becomes less important.” Today, it turns out; it’s whatever
can’t be networked that becomes less important.
In the body of the essay he argues that the
iPhone has replaced cameras. I believe that even though the author defines a
camera as a box with a lens in the front and a sensor or film in the back, that
a smart phone is no different. Some smart phones might have a lens on both
sides but even though the box is flattened a smart phone is a camera with a
phone or is that the other way around?
Lost in the argument in which images are
mostly seen on iPads, tablets or at best on monitors, is the idea that an image
(no longer called photographs these days, just pics), is an image that is also a good portrait. Forests, selfies, cats, sunsets, party groups are there in
myriads but there are few photographs with a sense of style. The playing field
has been evened out by the sheer quantity of people taking pictures with their
There is a lot of writing and talk about
the mechanics of these cameras and very little about what can be learned from
observing one of these many images, if every once in a while, one stands out from
that crowd. What it was taken with is irrelevant.
Mrs. Brandon Right Now
Wednesday, January 01, 2014
|Mrs. Brandon - Mathew Brady circa 1860-1865|
I will do my best not to write art-speak. The
photograph of Mrs. Brandon, a print from a wet collodion glass negative taken
by Mathew Brady between 1860 and 1865 is striking to me. Let me explain.
Because it is not in colour it seems to be
more a picture of today than one of almost two centuries ago. The colour in any
picture we see today seems to date it. Lurid colours come from oversharpening
and over saturating contemporary digital pictures. Pictures, particularly those
taken with colour negatives in the 60s have that faded look. Ektachrome slides
tended to be bluish and greenish. Kodachromes favoured oranges, yellows and
|Jo-Ann & Alex note reflector on right. The string left lowered paper backgrounds|
It is more difficult to read into a b+w
Perhaps about 20 years ago I went to show
of the Magnum agency photographs in Seattle.
The show was sponsored by Kodak and now expenses were spared. Within that show
I noticed one salient fact. This was that war photographers had suddenly
availed themselves of the 24mm lens. This meant that they could get
uncomfortably close to the action, by risking their lives! The particular
optical distortion of the lens, not obvious in good 28 and 35mm lenses, made it
all that obvious.
|Tara - Window light and reflector|
In Mathew Brady’s time the look of
photographs in some ways attempted to copy the effect of one by a formal
portrait painter. There was a respectful distance kept and the camera was far
enough away to take full-length or knees up portraits. One of the first
photographers to get close and to crop was Julia Margaret Cameron.
As I gaze at Mrs. Brandon and having read Robert
Wilson’sn Mathew Brady – Portraits of a Nation I know that Brady, like most of
his contemporaries had a large skylight over his studio floor. The slow
exposures of the photographic materials of his time needed lots of light and
even then sitters usually had a metal framework behind them that held them
motionless. Not looking at the camera made it a bit easier for the sitter to
refrain from blinking.
|Tara -Note flash softbox on right. Not too near so shadow on left not too dark|
Before photography became the rage that it
did by 1840 the most popular light for portraits (paintings) was window light.
A window will make the side of a face close to it light but on the other side
of the nose the light diminishes very quickly (those who must know can look up
the inverse square law of light).
That contrast between one side of the face
and the other could not be accommodated by the photographic materials of the
time. They had poor tolerance for what we would now call shadow detail.
|Tara - Softbox far away. Slow shutter to increase the lightness of background|
So photographers “invented” skylight
lighting, which really is an indoor imitation of a bright cloudy day. Shadows
on a cloudy day are minimal. Paradoxically to the detriment of photography,
Victorians used discarded (and not) glass negatives to make sun rooms/green
houses so they could grow ferns and pineapples.
Photographers who shot in colour before the
advent of digital cameras and in particular the old (old) ones had the terrible
maxim of “the sun behind you”. People staring at cameras would squint at those
noonday suns and the eyes would come out as empty eye sockets. Eventually some
of the photographers caught on to shooting in cloudy days or under trees. But
the colour films of the time accurately brought in the blue of a cloudy day or
the green from under a tree. These pictures (before Photoshop) could be
corrected with great difficulty.
If you happened to photograph businessmen
in offices which were lit by overhead fluorescents, the effect in b+w somehow imitated
Brady’s skylights. In colour the green made businessmen look sick.
With digital cameras and what is called custom
white balance or white balance, the colour pictures in most situations will
have clean whites no matter the situation, be it a snowy scene on the mountain
(blue) or pictures taking with mixed lights like fluorescent with tungsten
|Jo-Ann - Far from window. Close to window the shadow would be darker.|
But the colour and the quality (not as good
quality but as a result of having been taken in colour) of the colour dates the
In Mrs. Brandon the lack of colour, the
sharpness of the image, the modern look of the woman’s face in spite of what
she is wearing, bring with it all a startling impact of taken just this
For most of my photographic life I would
not have been caught dead taking pictures with skylight lighting. For one I
never had one. The closest was my Robson
Street studio. I had a back wall that I painted
middle gray. I painted the side wall white and on the opposite side I had a
bank of windows overlooking the Eaton’s/then/Sears building which was one city
block tall and wide white wall. If I wanted to increase the bouncing back of
the window light from the white side wall I would incorporate a large white
reflector as you see here in the portrait with me sitting with Jo-Ann.
But even when I could use this kind of
window light with reflection back so that a face would almost be the same shade
on both sides I avoided it.
A human face has curves. A photograph has
some difficulty in showing curves because a photograph is in two dimensions.
Curvature can be suggested by shadows. Flat lighting will flatten the body and
the scene. Another quality of what I would call Flemish window lighting (the
dark side of the face quite darkish) is that a chubby face will seem narrow.I used and use a small softbox (with flash) very close to my subject's face.
But now, after having seen Brady’s Mrs. Braandon,
I will experiment this 2014 with the skylight look. I have no skylight. How
will I do this?
I will pick a cloudy day and take one of my
gray backgrounds to the garden. I will setup my Manfrotto boom
with my 6 foot
long softbox and suspend it pointing down while giving lots of room for someone
to sit or stand underneath.
As our friend Rachel Maddow often says on
her MSNBC program, check this space for more.
A Hyper Realist New Year's Eve
Tuesday, December 31, 2013
It is not difficult for anybody to
understand that some photographers, and particularly this one, have a fondness
for hyper realistic painting. I admire Edward Hopper, and Canada’s Christopher
Pratt, Alex Colville and Mayne Island's Jim McKenzie. I have a fondness for the not so realist Americans Thomas
Eakins (also a fine photographer), Winslow Homer, all the Wyeths, and John
The above is probably because I am
unsophisticated and I have a poor understanding of Jackson Pollock's dripped
With that out of the way I will now hope to
dazzle some of you with the sense of wonder, delight (a smile came to my face)
when I looked upon the front page of my NY Times this morning over my large mug
of strong tea.
|Photograph by Damon Winter|
My eyes caught Damon Winter’s photograph
and because of the not excellent reproduction on newsprint, both the real
Bloomberg and the realistic painting by John R. Friedman look identical. This
was and is the kind of photograph that would not appear in those awful “The Year
in Review” kinds of photographs that feature war, famine, death, assassination and
For the delight of any that might still be
here I am featuring both my scan of the NY Times cover and the download from
the on line version. It is my hope that in the spirit of the coming new year
both Damon Winter and John R. Friedman (and of course the NY Times) will not
sue me for copyright infringement.
Happy New Year to all who read my blog.
After Christmas Puttering
Monday, December 30, 2013
Those ever more quick slow days between
Christmas and New Year’s Day are perfect for doing nothing or in a different
way of putting it, puttering.
I could go into the cold and humid darkroom
and putter with negatives and make prints. Or I can somehow enter the 21st
century and work with my monitor and computer.
But I never let old technology fade away
completely. The pictures you see here were originally taken on Kodak TMZ 5054 a
very fast 3200 ISO b+w film. I could have easily made some prints in the
darkroom or scanned the negatives with my Epson Perfection V700 Photo scanner. What
I did was scan four different images from the contact sheet. No matter how
clean the scanner glass is or how many times you wipe clean the glossy contact,
at the magnification needed for these images there is a lot of dust and stuff
that need persistent work with Photoshop’s healing brush and clone stamp tools.
Ghosts Of An Already Christmas Past
Sunday, December 29, 2013
When the family leaves late Christmas Eve
Rosemary and I pick up a bit and get into bed knowing that on Christmas day we
will not go anywhere. Even though the NY Times publishes on Christmas
day it will not be waiting for us in the morning. That day’s edition
will be wrapped with that of December 26. And so it was.
Since we do not have to go
anywhere we can stay in our bed clothes to lounge around and eat sweets
(marzipan and Belgian chocolates). Rosemary will drink lots of coffee and I
will make many large mugs of strong tea.
By December 26, the Christmas tree’s base
is empty of gifts and wrappings. By the 27th the living room is back
to normal except for the tree.
Lauren would note that the JBL monitors
(with their black front cloths) are back and that Ale took the AR-2ax speakers
to Lillooet. I will miss their presence and their accuracy and I am slowly
appreciating (I am rationalizing this!) the smoothness of the JBLs.
Today Ale loaded her van and left for
Lillooet. I hope she will enjoy the AR sound system that she is taking and that
she will share the beautiful sound in her solitude but with the company of her
beloved cat Banjo. When she was gone, I almost cried. I was left feeling empty. She
is so near and yet those curves and winter driving keep her so far.
|All neat & tidy|
She left my basement in beautiful order and
I am not ashamed of going down there. The packing of the Manfrotto boom in a
corner has given me the project and excitement of taking pictures in the spring
that will resemble the skylight lighting of Mathew Brady’s portraits.
The pictures of the snow, three days before
Christmas Eve, somehow give me a feeling of warmth but coldness at the same
time. I cannot complain about our almost white Christmas. I took the pictures
and all others here with the Fuji X-E1. That I have such a wonderful camera has
all to do with the constant urging of my Rosemary and the technical backing and
practical expertise of Jeff Gin from Leo’s Camera on Granville.
The living room as it is now, in spite of some of
the warm colours, is empty of the humanity of my family. I hope we are all
around to celebrate one more Christmas Eve and that the room will again be
messy with torn wrapping and giggling granddaughters.