Famous

A new surprise among library books: Famous Photographers Course, in three oversized volumes.

Yes, it was published by "Famous Photographers School," which apparently is now completely defunct after being absorbed a while back by Al Dorne's Famous Artists School (which doesn't offer anything about photography at this point, AFAIK). These books were published back in 1964.

What attracted me to them initial was the list of "faculty" instructors, including Bert Stern, Richard Avedon, Alfred Eisenstadt, Irving Penn, Philippe Halsman...

You simply could not make a book series like this today, in the era of rights managements and media-access control. The illustrations are pulled liberally from the pages of Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Life, and so forth. Celebrities in every direction, in photos that would never pass an agent's scrutiny and control today (Halsman dodging Tippy Hedren, spotting Audrey Hepburn). Classic shot after classic shot, it reads as much like Famous Photographs School as it does Famous Photographers.

Importantly, while there is technical info in this book (Penn using ferricyanide, or lesson 2: how to hold a TLR (which I was surprised to find I have been doing sub-optimally for many years)), it's a delight to find that it takes a passenger-seat ride. The basics are in there: processing, exposure, high key versus low key — but they are always the follow-on info, while the photos and the ideas behind them take front and center stage.

As a window into the world of working photographers of that era, I've never seen anything else like it.

Posted February 26, 2005 | Comments (2)

GPU Gems 2

It's here! Today I had a copy of GPU Gems 2 in my hand, newly back from the printer. Like new cars, freshly-printed books have that Special Sellable Smell all their own. Sweet. You'll find a teensy print of this photo inside the front section, as I've reprised my section-editor role from the previous edition — though this time I've stepped back to let other people write more of the book content proper.

My section, titled simply "High Quality Rendering" covers innovative uses of GPUs in image processing for movies like SpiderMan; in high-end compositing programs like Apple Motion and rendering programs like Gelato; and a handful of other push-the-envelope imaging methods aimed at getting the best quality images possible from a high-speed GPU pipeline. You can get a glimpse of them by checking out the Visual Table of Contents that's printed inside the book's front cover. We think this new edition is even better than the first best seller.

You can order Gems 2 from Amazon or just show up at the Moscone Center for the Game Developers Conference 2005 where there are sure to be copies on-hand and on sale. Last year's conference booksellers sold as many copies of Gems 1 as the printer could ship!

Posted February 25, 2005 | Comments (0)

Bells

It's been a crunch week and only now for the long weekend do I get a chance to even start looking at the photos from last weekend's wedding of Nicole (obvious in this shot) and Brandon (with the cake). Still haven't processed the Ektachrome.

Posted February 20, 2005 | Comments (1)

Side Projects

After having an enjoyable swipe through a few best photo books of 2004 lists, I thought the task was worth expanding — so a new project is to work through the titles in Andrew Roth's The Book of 101 Books. Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century and read each one I can find. A couple of them, I found, I already owned (okay, not originals but I'm not after originals). After a couple of weeks of picking-around, the score so far:

  1. The North American Indian Edward Curtis
  2. Camera Work XXXVI Alfred Stieglitz
  3. Camera Work XLIX No L Paul Strand
  4. Antlitz der Zeit August Sander
  5. Atget Photographe de Paris Eugène Atget
  6. Paris de Nuit Brassaï
  7. The English at Home Bill Brandt
  8. American Photographs Walker Evans
  9. Changing New York Berenice Abbot
  10. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men Walker Evans and James Agee
  11. Ballet Alexei Brodovitch
  12. Naked City Weegee
  13. The Sweet Flypaper of Life Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes
  14. Life is Good and Good For You in New York William Klein
  15. Observations Richard Avedon and Truman Capote
  16. The Americans Robert Frank
  17. Moments Preserved Irving Penn
  18. Killed by Roses Eikoh Hosoe and Yukio Mishima
  19. Every Building on the Sunset Strip Ed Ruscha
  20. The Animals Garry Winogrand
  21. Diary of a Century Jacques-Henri Lartigue
  22. Tulsa Larry Clark
  23. Diane Arbus Diane Arbus
  24. Wisconsin Death Trip Michael Lesy
  25. Suburbia Bill Owens
  26. The New West Robert Adams
  27. Lisette Model Lisette Model
  28. Telex Iran: In the Name of the Revolution Gilles Peress

So I'm not really sure if I should feel deeply ignorant or pretty-well-read. A lot of the titles in 101 Books are tough to find, of course — so I can read a recap of Moholy-Nagy, but good luck finding a copy of Malerei Fotograpfie Film. Other 101 titles are familiar through collections that include some of the same photos, or later volumes by the same artist (particularly Friedlander, one of the few artists to get creditied with multiple titles in the list — and whose recent Sticks and Stones is a current favorite), but it's interesting to see just how many I can track down and what I can find there.

Frankly, the list is intimidating. When I was first paging through the book, sitting at a café with Courtney, I commented that looking at all of this great work made me want to throw away every one of my prints and negatives as unworthy. I've since turned that admiration into a desire to do some fraction as well, and only occasionally feel like incinerating my photo storage cabinet.

Not everyone would approve of Roth's list — I was surprised to find no Ralph Gibson Somnambulist nor any sign of Sylvia Plachy, Boris Mikhailov's Unfinished Dissertation (!!), or Joel Meyerowitz; any of which I'd gladly trade for Lisette Model, Ugo Mulas, or over-representation for Bill Brandt and Larry Clark (good as they are). Traditionalist fans would likely be sad at the absence of Steichen's The Family of Man catalog (no surprise to me). But whatever the level of perfection in Roth's canon, the reading process is an illuminating one. And often one title leads to another off-list.

The surprise entry among books I've found so far was Brodovitch's Ballet — I never knew he even made any books of his own photos. And I found a copy almost immediately, quite a surprise when I discovered later that there were no more than 500 ever made, and most of them distributed as gifts (I should probably photocopy the entire book, as I did doing with a copy of the hard-to-find Pedagogical Sketchbook by Paul Klee). I'll call it a happy omen to give my project some inertia.


The other side (by side) project, or a half-formed one at the moment, has been to re-kindle my interest in 3D stereo (I've done several 3D films and videos, including an anaglyphic model viewer that I'm including as part of the upcoming edition of the NVIDIA SDK), thanks to my exposure to David Lee's photos and Holmes cards — especially hyperstereo. I dug out an old $1.50 lorgnette viewer from under the bed and started going to town. No two-camera set up just yet — I'll stick to the "cha-cha" method.

A side thought on this sidetrack: usually histories cite the Rolleiflex for the 1930's advent of square format photos — but surely the Holmes-format stereo card, with its paired squares, dates significantly earlier, and to the late 1880's.

I've posted the photo above as a cross-eyed "free view" shot. If people think that parallel viewing is preferable, let me know.

Posted February 14, 2005 | Comments (0)

Narrative Baggage Check

Over at her always thoughtful site the space in between, Stacy Oborn threads together three writers and their relationship to photography in perfect images, written photographs and the absolute.

For all three writers — Hervé Guibert, Roland Barthes, and Marguerite Duras —the photographs they most admire are either imagined or images from their family or even both. In each case the photo, real or imagined, comes along carrying a lot of narrative baggage. It's the narrative baggage, more than the image, that gives value and power to each photograph. And specifically, personal narrative. The authors will not see this photograph ("their" perfect photograph) as others will see it.

Here at home and far from France, Courtney's been collecting a fair number of found photos. A large part of their charm is that once stripped of their original narratives, these photos float free in complete polysemous weightlessness. Are these cute? Creepy? Tragic? Sure, they tend to bear witness to the commonality of cultural rituals: the happy couple, the new baby, the kids clustered beneath the christmas tree. Should we look at them as inscrutable? Should we invent new narratives for them? Can we help but do so? Do these photos somehow seek to be reconnected with their original stories? Is that comforting to us, are we as viewers simply trying to resolve our own invented narratives?

One of the photos on Stacy Oborn's entry is Hervé Guibert's self portrait, who photographed himself apparently laid-out in death. It's hard not to compare it to the self-portrait of Duane Michaels, who through some darkroom tricks showed himself alive looking at himself, deceased. Both photos seem to reflect on the death of a moment and the lasting life of the sitter in our imagination. This moment was burning with life, but now it is gone. All we have left is a fragile photographic ash.

Posted February 11, 2005 | Comments (0)

PMD1

We had the first session of Photography Made Difficult at Coffee Society tonight — it was a bit noisy and certainly crowded but quieter than the "Open Mic Night" over at Barefoot. The PMD group was small as expected: myself, Allan Chen, Pieris, and David Lee. Which was good — more than one or two additions and it would have been all the tougher to talk to everyone. And everyone brought prints!

Okay, I admit: part of the time we talked about equipment (mostly printers). But not abstractly — always in a "I used Xxx to make this print" context, which is exactly right.

David totally smoked us on presentation, not only with a slender book full of beautifully detailed "Super B" sized prints, but also with a collection of 6x6 stereo slides (with handmade wooden viewer) and stereo cards (with another handmade viewer). In his large prints, the backfrop of sand and streaming dunes really seemed just a backdrop against which he was painting tones by burning and dodging. In the strongest of those, the sand gave way to organic, even erotic forms (like this).

Pieris's prints were focused on technical issues for B&W, he's been rigorously developing a personal workflow, with a goal of enlarging a collection of old "found" (?) snapshots to gallery-hangable sizes — a good illustration of the polysemous nature of photography. The snap he showed was intruiging, but it's unlikely the intention of the sitters or photographer was to be part of a politically-redacted collection some 90 years later. I'm looking forward to seeing the "Real" prints from this series as they get chosen and Pieris prints them.

Allan's prints were from his office, different experiments in tone and inkjet printing, sometimes from what would have been unprintable negatives if not for the power of computer sweetening. One of them had just been announced as a nationwide college-photo finalist — good luck!

As for myself, I brought a book along of recent QTR prints, mostly images shot within the past four months that I haven't used here on Photorant, and rounded-up or printed over the past couple of days. There is a curious dynamic that occurs: once a photo has been printed, once it's a detailed physical object, I find it hard to think of it as a web pic. It's as if the photo has graduated, or perhaps escaped.

What's great is to see people working at photos as photos, not confusing equipment with pictures (no one confuses stereo gear with music, do they?) and working specifically at their ideas. I'm looking forward to the next installment.


Recommended reading for all: Signs and Relics by Sylvia Plachy.

Posted February 09, 2005 | Comments (1)

Fastest Thumb in the West

AF, MF, VF, SAF.

After having to answer this over and over again, and by request, I'm making a permanent entry here on the subject of fast accurate focusing with the Contax G2. The next time a Leica collector starts up about "slow AF" (this from a guy with no AF), I'll at least be able to lean back and type a URL to them with a smooth, authoritarian air.

So here goes:

The trick to using a G2 quickly is to ride the AF lock button. There, that's it. Really. Treat it a bit like a good EOS (Think Custom Function #4, sorta). It's all about the grip.

Here are the standard complaints I hear about the Contax. I hear them on the web, in emails, in person. The truth is they're pretty well dispatched as long as you know how to hold the camera.

  • The AF is slow.
  • The AF is noisy.
  • The lens moves back and forth between shots and it causes a delay.
  • The AF is never as good as a good manual focus.
  • It's just a fancy point-n-shoot.
  • The manual focus is impossible to use because the distance scale is on the top of the body, rather than the viewfinder.
  • It's not fair that it costs 1/5 of the Leica and has such good lenses.
  • See? It has no red dot!

Universally, these complaints come from folks who hold the camera wrongly (if at all — often such comments are prefaced with "the guy at the camera store told me...," or "I heard on photo.net..."). Part of the problem, surely, is a nearly-universal human tendency to avoid any sort of work and assume that if convenient technology is available, that it must be used; a attitude which is deeply wrong-headed imo.

The Contax G (like the Nikon F6) can be used as a point-n-shoot. Sometimes that's all you need. But just because the camera can be operated by a three-year-old doesn't mean that's the way it should always be used (this is a problem many users have with all sorts of equipment, BTW. In the face of technology that's increasingly idiot-proofed, people often think that it gives them a free license to be an idiot, or even the belief that idiocy is required).

The solutions are actually all in the Contax manual! But bits and pieces of crucial info are scatteed on odd pages. Further, the siren song of automation probably keeps a lot of folks from ever reading the Contax manual (here's a Leica advantage, all right — you need to know at least a little bit about what you're doing before you start. The manual struggle of just loading a camera like the M7 keeps most three year olds at bay).


Here's what to do: Set the camera in SAF mode, hold it with your thumb on the lock button, ready to press — aim the AF patch appropriately, press the lock button to focus and lock. Repeat as appropriate. Once you're happy with the focus, keep your thumb pressed.

When your thumb is pressed, the lens drives out to the actual focus position (this is a bit different from an AF SLR. In an AF SLR, the lens needs to move to determine focus. In an AF rangefinder like the Contax, the lens motion and distance detection can be separated, because the AF isn't TTL). As long as you hold down the AF lock, the lens stays put. No back-and-forth between shots, no delay. No noise either — the "noisy AF" complaints come not from the AF at all, but from the motor that drives the lens. If you're using the AF lock, and not cycling the focus its full length on every shot, the focus noise is nearly non-existant.

(Sure, it may seem awkward to hold the AF button when you take your eye away from the finder — go ahead and refocus. Would you trust the focus lever of a mechanical rangefinder to not get bumped?)

The focus-lock button does the same magic for manual focus — drives the lens to the right spot. You can use MF without the lock button, sure — but then you'll have to wait for the lens to move. The focus lock, when in MF, also provides a little-known bonus: the distance in meters appears directly in the viewfinder. Not just on the LCD panel atop the camera, but in the VF too.

And an even less-known feature: if you focus using the AF lock in SAF mode, hold down the button while turning the mode-select collar from SAF to MF. Now you'll be in manual focus mode, but the distance setting has been automagically copied from the SAF value (this works best on a body that's seen some use — the collar tends to be a bit stiff on brand-new bodies, but it's easy to turn once you've had a bit of practice and time to break-in the controls (and your fingers)).


Look at the illustration below (visitors to contaxg.com may recognize the source images from a folder of G-series bloopers). The little [ ] marks show where the central AF markers are placed.

In the first example, the focus is on the ceiling in the back. That's what you get if you just point-n-shoot.

If instead you ride the AF lock, you would focus on the face to one side, lock the focus in place, and re-compose. In other words, exactly the same sequence that you'd follow using the RF patch in a Leica.

Of course, there are a few differences:

  • You can use the Contax in dark conditions, especially at close range (the Contax IR will kick in and can focus in complete darkness. You can shoot, if you have a strobe).
  • You can use it with one hand — even wearing winter gloves.
  • You can use it in a pinch without even looking through the VF (takes a little practice, but the Contax is a terrific hipshooter).


The viewfinder is cited variously as a strong or weak point of the Contax. YMMV. It's a telescoping finder, so it doesn't show you areas outside the frame. Then again, neither do SLR finders. It zooms-in for using the 90mm lens, and zooms-out for the 28mm, without changing the overall size of the finder. Just like an SLR. Some people like that. I do. I keep around a Voigtländer 50mm outboard finder for use with the Contax 45mm, but I rarely, rarely have found it to be useful.

The finder in the Contax does have one lack w.r.t. a traditional mechanical split-image rangefinder patch — sometimes it can be tricky to verify where you're focused, other than looking (when in SAF mode) at the LCD panel. But the viewfinder, like a Leica M, is parallax-correcting. With a small amount of practice, you'll find that you can pretty accurately tell where the lens is focusing just based on the amount of right-to-left shift in the VF window (relative to the meter info and RF marker) as you adjust focus. Window moves to the right: close-up. Moves to the left: far.

A few Leica users get very comfortable with their focus, proud of the fact that their left hand just "knows where to go" without even looking at the patch or looking through the finder — quarter-turn for three meters, half turn for one meter... and I'm a huge fan of that. It's good to have a close physical connection to your tools, whether it's a camera, a shovel, or a violin.

I'm 100% convinced that modern camera designers tend to casually dismiss the muscle memory and hand skills of an expert user. In their rush to reduce all functions to a single electronic controller and an on-screen menu, they seem to have all forgotten the interconnection between hand and eye that's been essential in almost every successful tool since the days of the stone axe.

Fortunately, you can do the same sort of focus-by-feel with the Contax, though with its own flavor. When you press and release the AF lock, the lens drives in and out. Over time, you get a natural sense of how much vibration corresponds to a focal distance. No vibration: infinity. A little: 3 meters. A lot: very close. For critical focusing wide-open, look through the finder. But 1/250 f/11 outside on the street? No problemo.

One handy bit of extra info: I printed up a wee hyperfocal-distance chart and taped it onto the back of my G (you can see it in the top pix). I based it on this Google chart that prints a tiny, pocketable guide to DoF for every Zeiss lens at each f/stop (I keep the guide in my wallet, for occasional but rare reference). The little on-camera chart makes it easy to use the Contax with hyperfocal or zone focusing, which I do a fair deal (often I leave my AF set to 2.7 meters — a favored fixed distance for the 28mm at f/11).

So there you have it — my complete kit of fast and quiet focus tips for the Contax G.

HEGR-biased backpedallers will be unconvinced, of course. "The camera is too loud, it has a motor." As do M cameras with Leicavits. As do the Konica Hexar RF and the Xpan. "The shutter is metal, not that quiet Leica *kfik* that you get from a cloth shutter." True enough, it has a metal shutter just like the Voigtländers, the Konicas, and the Xpans. Or most any SLR. Not that you could tell with the motor running. I'm totally convinced that these subtle differences are worth four or five thousand dollars to some people, though I suspect that many of them would pay more for the red dot than the fabric shutter.

One final handy fact about the correct Contax grip:

When you use your thumb firmly, it's a lot easier to use the AE lock too. Your index finger is freer to move around. Of course, AE is one of those foolish modern features that no proper rangefinder user would want. I mean, not before 2002, at which point it became perfect.

Posted February 07, 2005 | Comments (4)

TV Time

I was surprised/impressed by an unexpected dramatic use of photography in an old re-run — the second half of a two-part episode of the time-travel series Quantum Leap (The premise of the series is that the current-day hero Sam's consciousness "leaps" into the bodies of various (usually non-famous) characters from late 20th century history. He is assisted by his colleague Al, who guides him with info gleaned from 21st-century sources). The episode is titled "The Leap Home Pt 2." If you like this TV series and haven't seen that episode re-run on SciFi yet, well:

SPOILER ALERT...

...the episode revolves around Sam in the Vietnam war, attempting to prevent the death of his older brother, a Navy SEAL. To collect information from the future via his friend Al, Sam manipulates a news photographer into accompanying the SEALs on a mission, so that her report of it will appear in future newspapers. We see her working on the story in the field, snapping as action goes by. Sam saves his brother's life, but in the course of changing history, the photographer is killed. No changing history without a penalty. But her Nikon F survives, and in it is a photo which is recorded by those future newspapers as a Pulitzer prize winner. Sam sees a print — and it actually is a terrific shot of American POWs being dragged down a shadowed dirt road by the VC, one POW's face turned back sadly toward the light. If such a shot had actually existed in 1970 it probably actually would have been prizewinning and historically-memorable — so as I'm watching I was already impressed that the scene portraying the "actual shooting" did indeed match the photo, yet the shot is so vividly realized and styled differently from the "usual reality" that we've seen in the show's regular cinematography. Then the knife twists further as Sam realizes that the face of the POW is that of his own friend Al, whose freedom has also been sacrificed (by Al's own choice — he could have led Sam to save the POWs rather than Sam's brother, thus folding the narrative back again into the photograph, where young Al alone gazes toward the lens of the hidden PJ).

How unusual to let so much ride on a single photo in a drama, much less for television! The emotional payoff of the show all revolves around a single black and white photograph, one that needed to be a convincingly terrific-looking PJ shot. Without the filmmakers delivering the goods on the photo, the episode would have sentimentally collapsed. What's more, the audience has been granted the priveleged view of seeing the very photo being made, earing the shutter click at what we know must have been The Moment. It's hard to imagine a screenwriter successfully getting this sort of scene into a film, so it's no surprise that the episode was written not by an outsider but the series creator and producer himself.

Is there some connection between photographs and time-travel dramas? There actually seems to be.... I can think of a few examples, such as La Jetee, the Back to the Future series, Memento (okay, not technically time travel), or the repeated presence of altered family photographs in the series Sliders.

While one could argue that a photo makes for very high-speed exposition in a story, a sort of storytelling shorthand, could there also be a conscious-or-not tip of the hat to the frozen nature of photographic time? What Richard Avedon once called "the death of a moment...part of the melacholy nature of photography"?

(Posted in an earlier form as part of an APUG thread, though I'd started writing here first...)

Posted February 04, 2005 | Comments (1)