Another Mind-Bender

Sorting through old files again today, looking for jus the right thing. This one wasn’t it, but hey, it was fun.  One of the great things about negatives and prints is that if you lie them flat on the table, you don’t always know which end is up.  In this case, I knew, but I was amazed at the optic illusion created when I turned it upside-down!


pillows of snow, inverted

... become sharp, pointy objects when viewed upside-down!

Pillows of snow

Soft pillows of snow shadowed by nearby trees...

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Blast from the Past

I was sifting through my archives today, looking for the origins of my Orb series for a talk I am giving. I dug back to the year 2000, where my experiments became sparse amongst my medium-format negatives. Going back just a little further, I found three tiny, circular images on 35mm film. Ah! I didn’t remember using my peephole lens with the smaller camera, but this must be it! I put the film on my scanner and said, “What the heck?” This didn’t look like any Orb I’d done before. It was textured on the surface with something wildly abstract. I thought and stared for a few minutes and then I remembered. The sphere wasn’t the product of a lens attachment. It was a soap bubble I photographed on a piece of black velvet.  I’d never printed it because it never fit with anything else, until I totally forgot about it. So, here it is.



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When You’re Not With the One You Love…

The other weekend was one of those occasions that called for the tough, all-purpose toy that can get wet, sandy, salty, muddy or possibly dropped on the ground unceremoniously in a backpack. It was not a good time for an expensive camera. Our main objective was not to go on a photo expedition. We packed light to go fossil hunting. Still, there is no way I was going to leave all my cameras behind and miss capturing a discovery I could not otherwise take home! You can kinda take the camera out of the photographer’s hands, sometimes, maybe… but you can’t take the photography away.


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Little Blue Buckets of Joy

I was working as a roving photographer at a school Field Day this morning. All around me were tots giggling, jumping and getting wet. I walked past the kiddie pool where they were keeping their supply of wet. The kids were changing stations and this one was resting quietly for a moment. Never pass up a prime few seconds of opportunity to do a little creative looking!


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Practicing My Craft Every Day

There is, here in my home state of Delaware and in many other places, an annual event called “Fun-A-Day.” The idea is simple: set yourself a project and add to it one piece every day for a month. It could be a serious art series, albeit with small projects, or something just plain silly, like picking up a new twig on your daily walk. There are no rules, other than a maximum size for 2D work, no limits on who can participate (over 100 in 2016!) and everybody gets to show their projects at the end of the month in a one-night show.  Fun.

I use this event as an excuse to break out of my own mold and develop an idea that needed a little incentive to start.  The first year it was lumen prints.  It was a lot of fun and I learned more than a couple things along the way. One of them was that daily projects should not be totally dependent on the weather. Lumen prints don’t work nearly as well inside a warm, dry house as they do in a bright, sunny outdoor spot and I ended up spending a few days playing catch-up.

Last year and this year, it has been night photography. I can’t count how many times I have admired the lights from cars, traffic lights, street signs and lamp posts on wet roads, the glare in fog and just streaking down the road on night road trips.  Equipped with both a DSLR and a waterproof point-and-shoot, I spent my time on nightly sojourns to different spots near home or wherever I happen to be. I’d set my camera on a tripod, program it for a 30-second exposure and watch the traffic swirl, the street lamps glow and the magic appear on my view screen. Lights on cars became long streaks of light across the frame. Unmoving lights become brilliant stars. The world is transformed.

There were lessons to be learned here, as always. Among them:

  • If you bring the DSLR and no umbrella, it will rain.
  • The best angle is always the one that requires swimming with the camera, flying or getting hit by a car.
  • Yes, it really can drop to record low temperatures two years in a row, and yes, I will go out anyway.
  • If you want the snow to fall, it will stop as soon as you get the camera out.
  • To take the picture you want of the lights streaking down the road requires standing at the street corner for an hour or more, waiting for just the right number of cars to pass through during a traffic light cycle.
  • Traffic lights take even longer to turn when you are taking pictures than when you are waiting to cross the intersection.
  • Blizzards are wonderfully eerie.  The roads during our quasi-annual snow-induced states of emergency are free to travel on foot and the glow of the street lights through the snow is magic. The only sounds in the swirling snow were the wind, the crunch of snow plows and a distant fog horn.
  • No matter how bright the lights in the foreground are, the moon is infinitely brighter. Your eye can get details in both seemingly at the same time because the brain is an incredibly intricate computer that can switch back and forth between the moon and artificial light sources fast enough that you perceive details in both at the same time. Cameras are not nearly that sophisticated. If you want the picture to look the way you saw it, you’re going to have to take two pictures, one of each light source, and make a composite photo on the man-made computer, but that is a topic for another blog.
  • No matter how much frustration I have over going out, finding a place to shoot, and fighting the camera to get what I want, I always come home happy. I had fun.
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Inspiration Close to Home

You don't have to travel to exotic locations to find wonders - just look at the ground under your feet!

The weather here in the Northeast USA has been bleak to say the least these past few months.  I write this while snowbound in a county that gave up the night before and just said, “Nope, not going to even think about opening tomorrow.”  The skies are gray and the ground alternates between white and white-tinged-with-soot.  Local travel even a couple miles down the road by any means can be tough.  Folks are more than a little tired of being cooped up and dreaming of sunshine and bright flowers.  Through all this I’ve taken the time to look at the immediate surroundings and see what fleeting wonders I can find in the neighborhood amid the ice and snow.  There is magic to be found in something as simple as the street gutter, if you take a close look. The ice formations in the shallow water freezes, thaws and re-freezes in an astounding array of patterns and textures.  Add  the dried leaves leftover from last fall, and I have an endless supply of fresh material which, though spring may (eventually!?!) defrost us, will be here in one form or another for as many years as I care to shuffle down my street.

I have some photographer friends who travel the globe looking for exotic scenes and faces to photograph, and others who wait for the right “photo ops.”  Ironically, one of those friends, who lives just a few miles from me, went thousands of miles to photograph the icy landscape of some other country twelve months ago.  I, myself, grew up looking at issue after issue of brightly-colored photography magazines showing the far-off places, presented as the ideal for anyone who wanted to be a photographer.  What I learned from being a teenager stuck firmly in the neighborhood in which I lived, was to look for the exotic when and where I was, not where I should (and maybe never could) go, and it has served me well.  And that friend who went far off to shoot the ice?  She may or may not do that again, but has since then decided that the 3-foot-wide creek that runs between houses down the street from me, the frozen puddles on the sidewalks, and the puddle that forms behind her home make for subject matter equal to the ice of her far-off adventure.  She now meets me weekly to shoot more ice pictures close to home.

Everyday objects can hold wonders when you look at them just right.

One does not even have to step out the front door to find something beautiful. Take a close look at what’s in your home. One woman I now wowed her camera club a few years back with the close-up she took of the swirl on top the freshly-opened tub of margarine in her refrigerator.  I stood one day watering my plants in the only sunny window in the place, arranged next to an old silver tea pot that was gathering dust in its display spot.  I saw myself reflected in the curved pot as if I was looking into a funhouse mirror and ran upstairs for a camera and tripod.  After half an hour of selfies I had one shot that I loved.  It went on to get accepted to a national juried show and was published.  Seven years later, one of my favorite photography class projects is to bring in a bag of shiny metal pans, tea pots, utensils, candle jar lids, etc., usually scratched and/or tarnished from years of use, and let the students experiment with them.  What surprises come from every-day objects!

It can be hard to feel creative stuck in the same old spot surrounded by the same old stuff.  The familiar is easily overlooked because it is there right in front of us all the time. The core issue is not what you see so much as how you see it.  My own way of keeping fresh is to stop looking at the stuff around the house as a mass of utilitarian objects and look for the shapes, shades, colors, patterns, reflections, shadows and lines that make up what is before me.   It helps me break away from the visual and mental clutter and enjoy my surroundings with fresh eyes.  If you want some inspiration close to home, try this exercise to refresh your perceptions:

Photographic Scavenger Hunt:

Take a walking tour of the place you call home.  It could be your dwelling, your street, your neighborhood, wherever you feel most familiar without actually traveling to someplace”photogenic.”  Look for the following:

Even in the gray of winter there are colors to be found.

1. A reflection

2. A shadow

3. Something with lots of texture

4. Something smooth

5. Something with strong lines

6. Something with an interesting shape

7. Something with a variety of shades of gray

8. Something with lots of contrast – old and new, light and dark, rough and smooth, all or none of the above, whatever fits your own definition and surroundings

9. Something colorful – Even in endless gray, I have found some very lovely colors tucked away in the ice.

10. A picture taken from an odd angle.  - We get stuck in a rut looking at everything from our height.  Try squatting down or getting up on a stool and re-examining things.

Though the items on the list might tend toward the abstract, most of them are fundamental elements of design that apply to any subject or style.  The texture, for example, might be some abstract treatment of a rusty pipe in the basement or the fur in a portrait of a family pet. Once you are done, you may just find that you look at everything a little bit differently.

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Thank You, Mr. Dad

Dear fair-going Father and Daughter,

You really warmed my heart today, knowing that you understood why I was out at the fair myself today.  You came into my tent and took a good, long look.  Daughter asked politely if she could take a picture of my photos on the wall.  Before I could even sigh, Dad said no, these pictures were for sale and that would not be right.  I appreciatively offered Daughter my business card, with one of my pictures on it, and told her that she could go home and look at my pictures any time she wanted on the web.  She smiled.

It was a small thing.  It will not put a penny in my pocket, but understanding helps.  When an artist hangs their work in public, it is generally not just to share their work.  Whether in a café, a craft fair, an art gallery or even some museum shows, artwork usually has a price tag somewhere.  It may be a labor of love, but it is also business.

In spite of the rather large price tag you might see, few of us are out to get rich off of our labors.  But, artwork has to come from somewhere; it is not free for us to share.  There are raw materials to use to make the work.  Very few people can make work exclusively out of found objects.  Even recycled-object art and things made from found twigs and other natural materials usually need nails, solder, string and/or glue to hold it all together.  There is equipment to purchase and maintain.   Once the work is made, there are display materials to buy – mat board, frames, hangers, pedestals, stands, tables, a tent or whatever the site requires.  There are space fees, application fees, commissions, advertising costs (like those business cards, cheap though they may be), gasoline, sometimes even hotels if the craft fair or show happens to be far away from home and studio and the artist doesn’t have a friend’s sofa handy.  Although it would be nice to say that we could just live from praise of our work, artists making physical work have to pay their bills if they are going to continue to make art and bring it to your eyes.

Your helping your daughter understand that we are trying to sell our work helps us to keep going.  If we do not sell our work, eventually it won’t be around for people to see.

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Old-School Editing

In the age of Photoshop, it is not an uncommon thing to doubt any picture that presents itself. It seems to take so little to change something.  But, while it might not be as instantaneous, just about anything one can do with a photo editor was once – and sometimes still is – used with film, too. Hardly a print comes from my darkroom that I do not retouch with my handy spot-toning inks to get rid of dust specks and distracting highlights. Likewise, I add highlights, remove phone wires and bits of dark distractions with a little bleach. Cropping is a must if I want to fit the image into a particular paper size. I make things darker here and lighter there, or make things disappear completely, all by manipulating how much light reaches the paper while I’m printing. With a little plastic wrap, I can make a sunny day into a foggy one.  That’s just the tip of the iceberg compared to all the lovely ways pre-digital commercial photographers routinely “improved” upon the prints on their desks! Check out these tricks from a manual published in 1946.

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Lumen Prints – Easy, Quick and Colorful!

Lovely Lumen Prints! This colorful photogram was made using black-and-white darkroom paper in full sun.

Every year or so I try out a new photo process or technique.  It keeps me from getting into a rut, even if I don’t use it long-term.  It often stems from my continual search for new ways to spark my students’ interest in photography as more than a way to document what you had for lunch to post on Facebook (although a lesson in still-life using lunches was fun for the day!)  Last year’s how-to-teach-darkroom-work-without-a-darkroom experiment was anthotypes, which I am now loving.  This year’s experiment is Lumen Printing.

Remember those lovely blue prints you made as a kid by squashing weeds on top of a piece of blue paper in the sun, waiting a minute, then watching it reverse in water (called cyanotypes, if you want to get technical)?  Lumen prints work much the same way, but with regular darkroom paper and a single chemical bath that can also be done in full light.  The key difference in the prints are that they have better detail and can be made in a variety of colors.

Lumen prints are made by placing a flat object over a piece of black-and-white darkroom paper in a contact printer (or between a piece of plexiglas and a piece of sturdy cardboard, held together with clothespins) and left in the sun until it changes color, in as little as a few minutes in bright sun for a light-colored print.  The paper will change color in the sunlight, leaving the shadowed areas unchanged or less-unchanged.  Once exposed, the print is placed in a bath of print fixer for five minutes and it changes color again, but becomes more or less permanent.

The color you get depends largely on the brand of paper you use and the length of time the paper is out in the sun.  In a few weeks’ experimenting I’ve come up with pinks, browns, purple-ish gray, and golden prints from a variety brands of old, exposed stock and fresh papers.  The longer the paper is exposed to the sun, the deeper the darker the color.

reactions between plant and paper can create some interesting color shifts.

Where it gets really interesting is when one uses plant material.  Some plants will react with the paper, creating even more color variation, especially if the plant is starting to rot in the contact printer.  The image to the right was done on the one 80-degree, record-high day we had in April.  The fresh flowers were anything but fresh after awhile under glass in the hot sun.  Below are the results of using some herbs from the fridge that were past their prime.  These two only took about 20 minutes each.

Color shift due to rotting material reacting with the paper. Note that the fresh flower on the left did not react. This print was in the sun for about 20 minutes before fixing.

One of the great things about this technique is that the paper does not have to be fresh.  The packaged blue paper, often called blueprint paper or nature-print paper, has a shelf life of about six months before it starts yielding lighter and lighter prints.  Lumen prints, however, are a great way to use old, fogged papers that are no longer any good for regular darkroom printing.  And, as there are still people with darkrooms gathering cobwebs because they don’t know what to do with the stuff after they go digital, old paper can be had for free if you look around.

So, dust off that fogged paper from the back of your local darkroom shelf and try something new!


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STEM in Art Class

I came across a very interesting post today by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post citing many of the benefits of art classes.  She talks about creativity, focus, collaboration, taking criticism, and other very general skills that can be carried over in just about any aspect of life.  She mentions the movement from STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to STEAM (adding the arts) in school curricula.  I would add that there can be actual hard-core science, technology, engineering  and math lessons to be found in the arts.

Take a look at my elementary-school photography class:

A humble cardboard-and-construction-paper pinhole camera: One part sculpture, one part photography tool, one part science and engineering experiment!

*In working with pinhole cameras, students learn how light travels.  The image projected inside the pinhole camera is upside down.  Why?  Because light travels in straight lines and as it goes through the hole and is projected 180 degrees from where it started.  That’s Physics for fourth-graders, boys and girls!

*By looking at an old camera lens and turning the aperture ring to show how the iris changes size, I not only show how the camera lets in more or less light to make a picture, but also how the kids eyes work in the same manner.  Biology in action!  But why stop there?  The camera needs a certain amount of light to make a well-exposed picture.  This is done by controlling the size of the iris and the speed of the exposure.  The smaller the iris, the longer the camera has to expose the image to let in enough light.  Cut the exposure time by half and you have to double the size of the iris.  That’s ratios and that’s Math.

*Also in the biology theme, we have explored how we see in three dimensions by making 3D photographs.  A traditional photograph is only two dimensional.  It is taken from one angle.  But, if you take a picture with the camera while standing with most of your weight on one foot, then shift your weight to the other foot and take a second picture, you now have two pictures taken at about the same positions as each of your eyes would see the scene.  Your brain puts the two pictures together from your eyes.  Force each eye to look at only one of the resulting photographs simultaneously by either crossing your eyes or using a viewer, and your brain will put the two pictures together the same way it seams the different inputs from your eyes.

*If you have a darkroom, there are all manner of new Math lessons to learn in computing exposure times using ratios, mixing chemicals in the proper proportions, figuring out how long the film has to sit in a chemical bath from a chart or by using ratios to compute the next time in the series when the chemical temperature is too high or too low for the chart or half-way between two columns on the chart.  And, don’t forget that everything here is a chemical reaction from the exposure to the film in the camera right through to the fixer bath on the paper.

So what about other areas of visual art?

“…and since geometry is the right foundation of all painting, I have decided to teach its rudiments and principles to all youngsters eager for art.” –Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)

In drawing and painting, there is much of Math.  On the simplest level, there are shapes to identify and explore.  As we develop, we learn more complicated math.  Think about a young child’s drawing.  Typically, everything is flat.  The trees are all the same height.  Objects are lines up next to each other rather than layered.  As we learn to draw, we learn to think about how things appear smaller at a distance.  Perspective drawing is all Geometry in action.  

What about the chemical change the occurs when clay is fired and hardened in a kiln? Or the Engineering involved in creating a strong armature for a sculpture so it does not collapse?

Art is not a discreet entity.  It, like so much of life, involves math, science and engineering that we take for granted when we pick up our art supplies.  But, when we look at how we use the tools in the art studio or classroom, they can be used as wonderful tools not only to create art but to understand how the world works.





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