Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The story behind the photograph

I love this photo. I absolutely do. It was made after I had instructed for 5 days straight with +Royce Howland and Costas Costoulas of Calgary's Resolve Photo in January on our Monochrome Printing Masterclass. 

In those 5 days we had given our students exercise after exercise to help fine tune their vision. Obviously I did the exercises too (with my iPhone). And our own exercises had an affect on me. It changed my vision a little bit. Talk about a win-win situation right?

I had seen this tree a few times before and it always intrigued me and stood out from the crowd so to speak. I had a gut feeling there was a photo there. But which one? 

After the workshop I said goodbye to my fellow instructors and drove straight to the tree. I got out of the truck, grabbed my viewing frame and started walking towards it. At first, I framed it wide with a lot of trees around it. Didn't work. Then I went to stand underneath it. Didn't work. After a few other tries I said to myself: 'OK Oli, step back and think about this for am minute. What do you really see?'.

I started to imagine how I would feel if I was that tree. How it would be to know there's a Forest fire on the way and you can't move. How would I feel? 


How would I feel when there was a lot of smoke around me. Obscuring my view. Filling my lungs. 

It would feel claustrophobic. And I would panic. 

Now I started to look at this tree again. How could I compose this so it communicated those feelings? My answer was to frame the tree super tight. Filling the frame to the edges. But I wanted to convey a sense of hope as well. That's why I decided to keep the sky blank and fairly light (there where clouds in the sky that day though). This was done in development. I placed the tree bark on Zone II 2/3 and overdeveloped so the sky would fall close to a Zone VIII. Setting the negative up for a nice contrast range (or contrast index).

But I also kept in 3 trees on the bottom to further enhance a secondary storyline of 'hope'. I deliberately made sure these trees where out of focus. Because I didn't want them to detract from the main focus too much and I needed them to be there in a supporting role. Quiet literally really. 

I think in the end I feel I made more of a portrait of this very unique looking tree than anything else. I was through my imagination I was able to see through the obvious and make an emotional and graphical looking photo. 

I should do this more often.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

My 2015 resolutions

Every year I try to think about what I want to focus on in the 12 months ahead. It's my way to staying focused on my craft. Some people do a 365/52 weeks project to achieve the same results.
So here is that obligatory post.

1. Darkroom printing

This year's main goal is to start printing wet. Yes I know I've been talking about this darkroom for about 2 years now but it is coming. I had my second meeting with the general contractor over the weekend and we will be ready to start soon I hope. The goal is to be set up and start my adventure in printing in April of this year.

2. Focus on one project

My other major goal is to focus on mostly one particular project this year. And think about ways my photography can make a difference in talking about problems in this world. Let me explain.

In October 2013 I stumbled onto a forest clear cut SW of Sundre. I was floored with how disrespectful we were going about harvesting lumber. There got to be a better ways in doing this I thought. Maybe I was (am) naive in believing the reality about the lumber industry in Canada.

The view I saw made me very sad. I couldn't understand why this was happening so close to home, so close to the protected Rocky Mountain parks. That day I also saw a herd of wild horses just north of where I initially parked the truck. They looked as confused as I was.

In the mean time I've sat down with 2 action groups and shared what I am trying to achieve. Both are very supportive and are now sources of information and guides for me to take advantage of. Also tonight I am sitting down with one group in a meeting with Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development to talk about what is going on and what is going to happen West of Cochrane for example. Should be interesting.

As part of this point I also want to make a few print donations this year to causes I believe in. A first 16x20 print will be leaving soon and will go to the Stivers School for the Arts silent auction. The auction consists of student work and donated work from professional fine art photographers from around the world. All the proceeds go directly to the photography department and are used to buy cameras, dark room equipment and chemicals for student use. The money raised each year helps keep their successful and award winning program running. I am all for programs like that because film photography is my main passion after all.

3. Spend less time online

I will also spend less time on social media so I can focus better on what I am doing and what I think is important for my art. Nobody needs to know what is happening with me all the time. A little seclusion should be good in my self growth.

4. Keep moving forward

Lastly I am also looking into attending a workshop this year. I am particularly interested in a 5 day darkroom workshop with living legend Bruce Barnbaum. Ever since I've read his book The Art of Photography I was hooked. Every photographer should read that book in my opinion. It is that fantastic!
So there you have it. 4 major goals this year. I should say ONLY 4 major goals this year. But 4 big ones.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Best of 2014

Looking back on 2014, I can only feel satisfied with my accomplishments. Here is a quick recap.
  • Four 24x30" prints were selected by the Alberta Society of Artists for a TRaveling EXhibition (TREX) around 'Symbolic Landscapes'. The exhibition shows work by Paul Zizka, Tyler Los Jones, Arianna Richardson, Brandy Dahrouge and Hannah Doersken. Our work will travel around Alberta for the next two years (started last September). The opportunity that was given to me to be a part of this exhibit makes me very VERY proud. 
  • In February I had my first portfolio review ever; which was a great, nervous, but also an amazing growing opportunity.
  • I had a short interview in Black+White photography. One of the leading photo mags in the UK.
  • My work was shortlisted in the FotoFilmic '14 competition, it received a Merit Award in the 2014 Black & White Magazine Portfolio Contest, and 2 photos received honorable mentions in the 2014 Stark Awards and 2014 Black and White Spider Awards. 
  • I also did more talks, presentations and workshops this year. I love doing these events. 
  • I started photographing using the 4x5 camera. And the weirdest part of this was that I had anticipated a huge learning curve but in reality, it turned out to be a true extension of how I think. Sometimes I feel like I've done this before or something. ;)
  • I wrote my first article for Extraordinary Vision no14 on how I found my vision. Looking back at it, I don't think I want to pursue any more writing. I found it rather stressful.  
  • I bailed on more magazine features and submitting more to galleries. My interest shifted inward throughout the year to better understand my own voice. 
  • I've met with quite a few togs this year. I met up with +Bernardo Möller , +Johan Peijnenburg , +Kevin Boyle , +Marc Koegel , +Grant Murray , just to name a few. It was a great year in that aspect. 
  • And I definitely printed more of my work this year. Both for myself as for clients. 
Using the 4x5 camera for all of my work this year was an interesting experience. I definitely photographed less than last year. I mean it resulted in less photographs. Looking on my hard drive I scanned 28 photographs this year. Yes you read that right, twenty-eight. But all of those photographs are good. Using the large format camera makes you very selective.

Here are 10 of my favourite photographs of 2014:

Pilot Mountain: a photograph I only recently took. I was on a scouting trip with +Paul Zizka  when I saw this scene. It was -35C when I made this negative. Challenging let me tell you.  

Ha Ling Peak and Ice, Canmore: one of the first photographs I took with the 4x5 where I felt comfortable using the camera. But I would be lying if I would not say that this was a lucky shot. I have a version without the ice too. That was the first photograph I took. I was packing up and I heared a loud crack. I look up and this sheet of ice is drifting from left to right in my foreground. I had to scramble and quickly mounted the lens back on the camera, I hoped the light had not changed, quickly looked over my settings and double checked the focus and managed to get 2 negatives. Talk about pointing and shooting with a 4x5! 

Fortress Mountain: taken on an early fall morning in September. This is Wedge Pond in Kananaskis. One of the local photographic hot spots. And that morning it didn't disappoint. I think about a dozen or so other photographers were all set up waiting for the light to do it's thing. For colour photography it was a disappointing morning, but for B&W photographers like me it was perfect. I walked around the lake, making 4 photographs and packed up around 11.

Canola and Trees: a photograph I made mid August. The Canola in the foreground was almost ripe. The warm evening light was low when it spotlighted the mid ground trees. I was just 10 minutes to the South West of Calgary. And it was dead quiet. 

Hill: a random hill along the QE2 grabbed my attention in June. It wasn't until I was on the side-road that I noticed the bright coloured soil in the foreground. I found it compelling enough to make a zone system exercise out of this.

Lone Pine, Lake Minnewanka: a photo that was inspired by a +Paul Zizka night photograph "The Sentinel". I made this along side +Johan Peijnenburg in the beginning of September. I had set up the camera and was waiting for some people to clear the scene and the wind to die, when some random woman walked up to me and asked if she could photograph my camera. After I said yes to that she turned towards me and asked if she could make a photograph of me with the camera... Talk about weird. But I happily obliged, cracked a big smile and gave her my business card.

Homestead: the only photograph I made on the winter workshop  +Marc Koegel  and I set up in Calgary. I usually don't make any photos when I teach but this was such a happy accident, I couldn't resist. We took a wrong range road that day and literally bumped into this gorgeous scene. I looked at Marc, he looked at me, and we winged it and ditched our original location for this one. While I was setting up the camera I debated composition with four of our students and explained what I was looking for. I also took the opportunity to explain and demonstrate how I measured the light and how I use the zone system in my work. We are doing this workshop again in February. Check out the details of this workshop on the website.

Turner Valley Foothills: I love exploring the foothills around Calgary. And I knew when I saw this vista that a photo was going to be made. It was a rainy day in late August. It was mostly the organization of this view that attracted me to make a photo.  

Mount Rundle and Stump: Such a classic view. It never gets old.
Lonesome: Another typical August sky on the Prairies. Beautiful golden light was spilling over this tree when I initially passed it. I had to turn around to actually be able to use a little pull out just to its left to park the truck. Once I had set up the camera a big cloud rolled across the sun and the magic was gone. I waited and waited and waited some more until 45 minutes later I was finally able to make this photograph. 

There you have it. My year in review. In the next few weeks I will start writing down my 2015 resolutions. But one resolution that is already on that list is: PRINT IN THE DARKROOM AGAIN! Yes finally after about 2 years of debating, the first steps are being made to build my very own darkroom again in the basement. More on that later.

Merry Christmas and a happy and inspirational 2015 everyone!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Lets talk composition

Composition – for me – is an intricate part of my 'seeing' process. I go to great lengths to look at scenes from different angles whilst thinking of different focal length lenses and how that changes the relationship between subjects in a photo. 

What do you do for example when you can't use the rule of thirds (or is that turds), leading lines and frame in frame? Do you just wing it? Use your gut feeling? Or do you spray and pray and hope you have one photo where you can crop something out from? 

What if I told you there's a whole other way of framing your compositions out there. It's not new. But it's a more classical, dare I say a more refined way of composing. And it dates back as early as the Greek Temples like the Parthenon.  

Let's start our discussion with this seemingly simple looking photograph. It's a photograph I made a few months ago in Banff. I took just one photo (I exposed 2 sheets) on this location. Once I saw the composition I wanted in my head (after about 30-45 min of walking, pondering and thinking), it was just a matter of setting up the camera and expose those 2 sheets.

So what's so special about this you'd ask? Let me explain.

If you are a follower of the rule of thirds you will say tsk tsk tsk you didn't put the stump on one of the thirds and the mountain is practically placed in the middle. Those are no no's! 

I am not a fan of the rule of thirds because I don't think in the 4x5 format, it makes for a balanced frame at all. Here is an example of the rule of thirds grid overlaid on this photo (I also indicated the middle on both axis).

If I would have used the rule of thirds I would have had to use a shorter lens, the stump in the foreground would have covered up the reflection. And personally I don't like overlaps. But to each his/her own of course. And the composition would have too much breathing room around it. I like things tight and I only like to include the most essential elements to tell my story. 

Let me explain how I DID compose this photo.

First I looked at the bulk of the photograph. The mountain, the shore line, the reflection and the water.  Maybe you noticed already but all that stuff makes a perfect square (red) starting from the bottom edge. The top of Mount Rundle would be the top part of the square. I then 'guessed' where the shoreline in the distance had to be. A technique I love to use in a composition is to use a line starting from a point where an imaginary circle (centred around the bottom left corner) crosses the baroque diagonal (blue line) for that square. That's where – in this photo – I placed the horizon line (green dotted line). This line actually makes what we call a √2 rectangle. A rectangle where the short side is 1 and the long side is √2 (more on that later). This whole exercise will tell you how high your tripod needs to basically be and what focal length lens you need to use. Sounds more complicated than it is. Here's that all explained visually. Also note the repeating diagonal of Rundle's edge (solid green line).

Let's move on and let's place that stump in a spot that is visually appealing. What I did for this was very similar. I kept the square on the bottom but I flipped it all around. I again used the baroque diagonal but this time I drew a circle, centred around the top right corner of that square. And applied the same technique as previously discussed. Here's the two overlaid. 

There, now I knew I wanted to place that stump on that horizontal line. But where vertically? I decided to use another technique for that. But now based on the diagonal of the whole frame instead of just the bottom square. I used the same baroque diagonal (bottom left to top right, red) and lowered the reciprocals (blue). 

By doing so I can also trace secondary vertical and horizontal lines out of the tension points of these two lines (in green). 

That allowed me to do three things. It allowed me to frame the top of Rundle in between the two verticals, it allowed me to check placement of the tops of the trees (I was fortunate the composition did that for me) and I placed the stump on the left vertical. Also note how the triangle on the bottom frames the grasses around the stump. Again, yes that was intentional.

I could have obviously used the other diagonal and placed the stump on the right. Although the composition would have then been very right heavy because of the overly dark tones on the right hand side. But I can use the sinister diagonal (top left to bottom right) to further refine my composition. I did so and lowered the same reciprocals. Overlay all of this and now I can add tertiary verticals and horizontals and even go beyond that with quaternary lines. The design of this photo should now be very clear to you. 

Another technique I love to use is designing with root rectangles to place elements as previously touched on. 

Let's take the top section for example. If I draw a square now at the top of this photo and do the diagonal and circle 'trick', you can see that the reflection is now purposely placed as well. See how the circle 'cups' the reflection? The top of the reflected trees fall on the √2 rectangle. If I now draw another diagonal starting from the same point I previously started from to that √2 rectangle, I can now find the √3 rectangle. And so on and so forth. 

Of course you can use the other diagonal too and start drawing a circle from another corner and do this all again. Kind of to 'double check' your composition.

Anyway. That's just some of the stuff I think about when composing photographs. It looks all very technical but these techniques can easily be integrated in your workflow. If you use live view to compose your work for example, you already do this to some extent

Using a large format camera gives me the advantage I can stand back a little farther and study a photograph on the ground glass (that things does have a lot of lines on it) in all peace and quiet under the dark cloth. Plus it is upside down and reversed, which means my brain is not recognising what I'm looking at and therefor I can think about this in a more abstract way. 

Solid composition is the coat hanger of any piece of art. Sculpture, architecture, painting, poetry, and yes photography as well. Back in the day, painters would go to great lengths to design their paintings. So why wouldn't we try to do the same? 
I think it's pretty unfortunate that so many beginning photographers place more importance on technique than solid composition.  

Training can make your eyes and mind pick up on these things. I am lucky I have a background in graphic design. But studying the old photographic masters, studying paintings and architecture and thinking about these things while visiting musea will make you a better artist in the end.